Two Supreme Court Rulings Expand Police Powers and Limit Civil Rights Enforcement

April 24, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON--In a narrow 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court today said that people stopped for minor offenses punishable only by a fine, such as not using seatbelts or jaywalking, can be subject to a full-scale police arrest including handcuffs, booking and jail.

A divided court also made it harder to enforce the nation's civil rights laws, ruling that any recipients of federal funding, including states, schools and colleges, may not be sued for policies that have a discriminatory effect on blacks, Latinos or other minorities.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases, called the rulings a blow to civil liberties and warned that the decisions may have dire consequences for the nation's people of color.

""In one fell swoop, the Court has both increased the potential for racial profiling and diminished 30 years of civil rights law designed to protect victims of discrimination,"" said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU.

At issue in the police arrest case, Atwater v. Lago Vista, No. 99-1948, was whether someone who is charged with a misdemeanor that is punishable only by a fine, not jail time, could be arrested and jailed prior to conviction at the sole discretion of a police officer.

The case involved a Texas ""soccer mom"" who is white; but in its legal brief, the ACLU warned that giving the police such discretionary authority too often represents an open invitation to racial profiling of African American, Latino and other minority motorists.

Indeed, noted Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, author of the dissenting opinion, ""as the recent debate over racial profiling demonstrates all too clearly, a relatively minor traffic infraction may often serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing an individual.""

Susan Herman, author of the ACLU brief and a professor at Brooklyn Law School, said that the case had offered the Justices an opportunity to address the critical question of whether there are any objective limitations on the power to arrest. But instead of setting much-needed boundaries on police authority, ""the Court settled for no limits at all,"" she said.

In Alexander v. Sandoval, No. 99-1908, the Court barred private individuals from filing lawsuits under the 1964 Civil Rights Act contending that federally funded programs are operated in a way that discriminates, in practice, on the basis of race or ethnic background.

The court rejected a lawsuit by a group of non-English-speaking motorists in Alabama, who contended that a state motor vehicle policy of giving driver's license tests only in English has the effect of discriminating on the basis of ethnic background.

""With today's ruling,"" the ACLU's Shapiro said, ""the Court has turned back the clock on three decades of civil rights enforcement."

""For more than a quarter-century, laws forbidding discrimination in federally assisted programs or activities have been a mainstay of national civil rights policy,"" Shapiro said. ""Congress clearly intended to allow such lawsuits under the 1964 Act.""

Even the majority recognized that such lawsuits are appropriate to combat intentional discrimination, but outlawed their use to challenge programs that have a discriminatory effect, he explained.

In light of today's Supreme Court decision, Shapiro said, ""Congress must act once again to ensure that victims of discrimination can have their day in court."

"More than ever,"" he added, "the burden is now on the Department of Justice and other federal agencies to ensure that federal tax dollars are not used to support this kind of discrimination.""

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