Federal Appeals Court Revives Michigan "Bicycling-While-Black" Lawsuit

Affiliate: ACLU of Michigan
June 8, 2005 12:00 am

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DETROIT -- A federal appeals court today reinstated a so-called "bicycling-while-black" lawsuit after finding that there is enough evidence of racial discrimination and illegal searches by a suburban Detroit police department to take the case to a jury. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan argued the appeal of the racial profiling lawsuit, which was brought by 21 young African American men in 2001.

"The ruling today is a clear sign that the court will not tolerate race-based discrimination and reinforces the constitutional principle that people cannot be searched by police in the absence of evidence of criminal activity," said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan Executive Director. "What happened to these children is unconscionable."

The legal challenge charging a practice of racial profiling began after a 1996 memorandum from former police chief Fred DeWeese instructed officers to investigate any black youths riding on bikes through Eastpointe, a predominantly white suburb of Detroit. Police logs and reports in Eastpointe identified more than 100 incidents between 1995 and 1998 in which African American youths, ages 11-18, were detained. The 21 young men represented in the lawsuit were pulled over, questioned, searched and detained by police, and some of their bikes were confiscated and sold.

A district court judge dismissed much of the lawsuit in 2003, saying that there was not enough evidence to support the claims. But today's decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court ruling after finding that there is enough evidence in the majority of incidents presented in the lawsuit for the case to proceed. The appeals court indicated that many of the police actions employed against the young men, such as pat-down searches, use of handcuffs, seizing the bicycles, and detention in the back seat of a police car, are unreasonable and unconstitutional.

In the three-judge panel opinion, Judge Boyce F. Martin, Jr., wrote, "We are compelled to comment here, however, that we are both frustrated and concerned with what appears to be consistent disregard for basic Fourth Amendment principles by the Eastpointe Police Department and its officers? the Fourth Amendment does not tolerate, nor has the Supreme Court or this Court ever condoned pat-down searches without some specific and articulable facts to warrant a reasonable officer in the belief that the person detained was armed and dangerous."

In one incident presented in the lawsuit, one boy, who had recently received his bike as a birthday present from his father, was stopped by police officers. In spite of the fact that a search of a police database found that the bike had not been stolen, the officers seized the bike and later sold it at a police auction.

According to the lawsuit, one young man was "escorted" back across Eight Mile and another was called a "nigger" and told to "get your black ass out of that car and pick that piece of paper up, because you're not at home."

The court's opinion stated, "The officers essentially reversed the onus under the Fourth Amendment and placed the burden on the youths to demonstrate that the bikes were not stolen, whereas the burden?is on law enforcement to justify its intrusions. It is not up to individuals to demonstrate the absence of criminal activity?"."

In another incident, when five boys -- four black and one white -- were stopped by police officers, only the four black boys were detained and held in the backseat of a police car. In this incident, the court said it could see no justification to warrant this action. The court also found problematic the fact that only the four black youths were detained: "The officers were not dealing with a nervous and jittery motorist who could step on the gas at any second and flee at high speeds, but rather the officers were approaching children on bicycles," the court noted.

The court further noted that there was "weak justification for the detention of the four youths (in addition to the obvious problem with detaining only the African-American youths)."

"This is victory for a community that has long been embroiled in a saga of racial tension between the residents of Detroit living near predominantly white suburbs," Moss said.

ACLU cooperating attorney Mark Finnegan and ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg litigated the case in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The ACLU joined the case as co-counsel in the lawsuit previously filed by Charles Chomet.

To read the appeals court decision, go to: www.aclumich.org/pdf/briefs/bikingwhileblackappealsdecision.pdf.

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