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French Top Court to Rule on Racial Profiling for First Time

Activist groups hope the much-awaited decision will end what they call routine discrimination by police against minorities

In this Feb. 25 2015 photo, French plaintiffs Amponsah, left, and Elize Novembre stand with Lanna Hollo, senior legal officer with Open Society Justice Initiative, and talk to the media at Paris appeals court, in Paris, photo: AP/Francois Mori
1 year ago

A lawyer who claims French police carried out unjustified identity checks on 13 black and Arab men based only on their racial profiles asked the country’s highest court Tuesday to “make history” and rule for the first time that officers acted illegally.

Activist groups hope the much-awaited decision will end what they call routine discrimination by police against minorities. Ethnically-biased ID checks have long been cited as a prime reason for troubled relations between police and residents of poor suburbs.

Lawyer Thomas Lyon-Caen told the Cour de Cassation the ID checks in 2011 and 2012 violated the basic rights of his 13 clients and were discriminatory because a democratic state cannot “link delinquency to skin color.”

He said a study conducted by France’s National Center for Scientific Research has shown that blacks have 12 times more chance of being checked by police than whites, and those of Arab origin have 15 times more chance.

But the prosecutor at the hearing asked the supreme judges to declare only eight of the 13 cases illegal. He said the remaining five appear valid because the checks were based on “objective elements” and therefore not discriminatory.

The presiding judge said the top court’s ruling will be returned on Nov. 9. The decision is expected to set a legal precedent.

Francois Boucard, a lawyer for Defender of Human Rights, a French independent watchdog, said racial profiling has become commonplace even if people are not suspected of any specific offenses. The ID checks are often based “on different facial features, on features from elsewhere, on the skin color,” the lawyer told the court.

Boucard said young men with immigrant backgrounds and from “visible minorities” are over-represented among the population “especially targeted” by ID checks and that racial bias often leads to a “feeling of injustice” among young people of black or North African origins, a large part of whom live in deprived suburbs of French cities.

The lawyer for the French state, Alice Meier-Bourdeau, warned the top judges their ruling shouldn’t “throw suspicion on any police officer or any representative of the state” and lead to a widespread challenging of ID checks in courts.

Boucard, the watchdog lawyer, said the suits don’t intend to prevent police from performing ID checks, especially in the “very sensitive context” of recent attacks by Islamic extremists in France, but only to set a more specific legal framework for those checks.

The arguments focused on alleged victims of racial profiling not being able to prove in court that they were discriminated against.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs ask the Cour de Cassation to rule that the burden of proof must be shared. They say courts should accept even a mere assumption of discrimination — through a single witness’s testimony, for instance — while police authorities should prove there were “objective elements” for the ID checks.

None of the 13 men had a police record, but each said he was victim of multiple, humiliating ID checks, considered by French police to be an important crime-fighting tactic.

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