What's at Stake
Our Constitution promises all people, regardless of their race, equal protection under the laws. Accordingly, courts have long recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits selective enforcement of criminal laws based on race. Yet law enforcement officers of the City of San Francisco have repeatedly violated that clause, singling out Black people for enforcement.
In 2013 and 2014, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California (USAO) partnered with the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to enforce certain drug laws in the Tenderloin neighborhood. In doing so, officers of the SFPD targeted 37 people for federal prosecution for selling small amounts of drugs. Despite SFPD’s knowing that people of many different races engage in drug sales in the Tenderloin, all 37 people those officers targeted were Black.
Not only did the SFPD officers commit overt constitutional violations against these 37 Black individuals, the department itself has a long history of racially discriminatory law enforcement. Reports dating back to at least 2002 by the ACLU of Northern California, the Hayward Burns Justice Institute, the U.S. Department of Justice, a Blue Ribbon panel convened by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, and others have documented the SFPD’s alarming racial disparities in enforcement of the law.
The department has refused to implement reforms in response to its history of racially biased policing, and has likewise refused to acknowledge or counteract a departmental culture that tolerates racism and fails to adequately discipline officers the department knows have demonstrated racial bias. This indifference and inaction resulted in the selective enforcement of drug laws against Black residents.
The ACLU, the ACLU of Northern California, and Durie Tangri LLP have brought this lawsuit on behalf of the six of the people whose rights the SFPD violated by targeting them for arrest and prosecution based on their race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.