PHILADELPHIA – A federal class action claims Philadelphia police single out black and Latino men for unconstitutional “stop and frisks.” More than 72 percent of those stopped and frisked in 2009 were black, though they make up only 44 percent of the city’s population, according to the city’s own statistics. The issue has been a contentious one in New York City, and has led to similar litigation there.
Eight black and Latino men, including an attorney and a state legislator, sued the city, its Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and nine police officers for detaining and frisking them without probable cause.
“The defendants have implemented and enforced a policy and practice of stops, frisks, searches and detentions of persons, including plaintiffs, without probable cause or reasonable suspicion as required by the Fourth Amendment,” according to the new complaint.
“The stops, frisks, searches and detentions by Philadelphia Police Department (‘PPD’) officers are often based on constitutionally impermissible considerations of race and/or national origin in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The victims of such racial and/or national origin profiling are principally black and Latino men.”
The stop-and-frisk policy begun under Mayor Michael Nutter has incensed “multiple civil rights and community groups,” the ACLU said in a statement. The ACLU is co-counsel in the case.
Citing data obtained from the Police Department’s Research and Planning Unit, the complaint claims that of the 253,333 stops in 2009, more than 183,000 – 72 percent – were of African-Americans, who make up 44 percent of the city’s population. Just 8.4 percent of the stops led to an arrest.
Pedestrian stops by police increased by 148 percent from 2005 to 2009 – from 102,319 in 2005 to 253,333 in 2009, the complaint states.
Plaintiff Mahari Bailey, a 27-year-old attorney, says police officers stopped him four times in 18 months “without cause or justification.”
The complaint describes one such incident:
“On or about August 9, 2009, plaintiff Bailey and some African-American friends were standing in the area of 53rd and Euclid Streets in Philadelphia. Plaintiff Bailey was approached by officers hereinafter referred to as defendants John Doe(s) No. 3, who, without cause or justification, told Mr. Bailey and his companions to stand against a wall to be searched. When Mr. Bailey told the police that he was an attorney and refused to consent to a search, one of the officers raised his fists in a threatening manner, told Mr. Bailey that he ‘didn’t give a fuck who you are,’ and left the scene. Mr. Bailey was released and no criminal charges were brought against him.”
Plaintiff Jewell Williams, a 52-year-old member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, says officers handcuffed him in 2009 during a traffic jam caused by a stop and frisk of two other plaintiffs.
Williams got out of his car to see what was happening, and an officer “approached plaintiff Williams and ordered him to ‘get back in the fucking car and move your car away,'” the complaint states.
“Plaintiff Williams, while remaining next to his car, identified himself to defendant Devlin as a state official, and showed his official state identification. Defendant Devlin then ordered plaintiff Williams to ‘get back in your fucking car before I give you a bunch of tickets.’ Plaintiff Williams asked to speak to defendant Devlin’s supervisor when, without cause or justification, he was handcuffed by defendant Devlin in an excessively tight manner.”
Williams has sued the city as an individual.
The other named plaintiffs in the class action are Timothy Streaty, Fernando Montero, Preston Fulton, Gregory Blackmon Jr., John Cornish and Carl Cutler.
“These unconstitutional actions have had and continue to have a devastating effect on the lives of many Philadelphians,” said Paul Messing, a partner with Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, the firm representing the plaintiffs. “Beyond that, these police practices have had no real impact on stemming criminal conduct in our city. They just subject innocent people to humiliating and degrading treatment.”
The class action wants the city enjoined from “continuing its policy, practice and/or custom of stops, frisks, searches and detentions without probable cause or reasonable suspicion.”
It also wants “defendants City and Commissioner Ramsey to monitor and audit stop, frisk, search and detention practices of the PPD, to ensure that stops, frisks, searches and detentions comport with constitutional requirements,” and compensatory damages for the named plaintiffs.