Arizona Supreme Court Hears ‘Neighborhood Profiling’ Case

PHOENIX (CN) — Arizona told its state Supreme Court on Wednesday why police officers have reasonable cause to justify a pat-down search based on a person’s location and company.

As Anthony Benard Primous sat outside a Phoenix apartment complex with three other men in February 2102, police officers arrived seeking someone with an outstanding felony warrant. After one man ran away and another admitted he was holding marijuana, the officers searched Primous and found two grams of marijuana.

He was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana and the trial court denied his motion to suppress. He was convicted and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Primous insists there was no reasonable cause to justify the search, as he was not involved in any crime, was unarmed and offering no threat to anyone, but was sitting calmly with a 1-year-old child on his lap.

The trial court reasoned that because of “the one individual who ran, coupled with the reason for their encounter with the group, the dangerousness of the area, the number of individuals remaining compared to the number of officers … officers appropriately decided to perform a pat-down search for officer safety.”

The ACLU of Arizona filed an amicus brief for Primous on Sept. 30 last year.

On Wednesday, ACLU legal director Kathy Brody reminded that court that the three men who did not run were calm and cooperative and offered no threat to the officers. She said that “neighborhood profiling,” like racial profiling, does not justify a pat-down search.

“If officers can stop and frisk people…just because there’s a so-called bad neighborhood, what’s to stop officers from conducting dragnet operations in bad neighborhoods?” she asked.

Left unsaid but known to all parties Wednesday was the string of lawsuits, federal court orders and sanctions involving former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s so-called “crime suppression sweeps” in Phoenix-area Latino neighborhoods.

Assistant Attorney General Robert Walsh told the Supreme Court that the officers were seeking a dangerous criminal, in a bad neighborhood, and faced the possibility of the situation escalating. “Wouldn’t it be foolhardy in this situation not to know if the people in front of you are armed?” Walsh asked.

According to the case summary, the area was known for violent crimes, and the officers were seeking a man “who had an outstanding felony arrest warrant, and acting on information that the individual frequented the area, carried weapons, and sold drugs and weapons.”

The justices questioned Walsh keenly about whether he was arguing that Primous offered any reason for officers to believe he was armed and dangerous, Walsh agreed he had not. He warned the justices, however, against setting a precedent in which police officers would forego searches for fear of violating requirements of probable cause and place themselves in danger as a result.