NEW YORK/PARIS—France’s top civil court ruled today that police stops which disproportionately target young people of African and Arab origin are illegal, in a judgment that clears the way for fundamental changes in French police practices.
The Court of Cassation in Paris was reviewing a case involving complaints brought by 13 young men who argued that they had been subject to police identity checks (known as Contrôle au faciès) purely because of their ethnic origin.
Contrary to the State’s arguments, the judges ruled that non-discrimination law applies to policing activities as to other sectors of life.
The court also articulated rules of evidence that place the lion’s share of the burden of proof on the police to demonstrate that they carry out stop and search activities in a non-discriminatory manner.
The judgment was welcomed by James A. Goldston, executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative, which has supported the lawyers representing the 13 claimants:
“This ruling is a victory not just for the claimants, but for the many other individuals subjected to discriminatory stops, frisks and searches each day. The French police have regrettably resisted any attempt to provide a record of these stops, depriving the victims of any recourse—this ruling will require that to change.”
The Court of Cassation clarified that those singled out for stops need only present enough evidence to create a presumption of discrimination, and that statistical evidence may be taken into account in this evaluation. The State, the party in a position to access evidence about the reasons for the checks, must then prove that the check was based on objective and individualized grounds.
French police currently do not record any data on the ethnic identity of those subjected to stops. Until French authorities introduce a record of such checks, such as a stop form similar to those used by police forces in England and elsewhere, they will be hard-placed to meet this evidentiary obligation, and risk losing cases, as they have no information about the identity checks carried out by law enforcement officials.
Lanna Hollo, a legal officer for the Justice Initiative based in Paris, said: “This ruling obliges French authorities to finally make good on President Hollande’s 2012 electoral promise to take measures to address discriminatory identity checks, including introducing stop forms and requiring objective grounds for all stops.”
In these cases, claimants made use of statistics from a quantitative study by the Justice Initiative and the French National Research Institute (CNRS), carried out in Paris in 2009, that demonstrated that individuals identified as “Blacks” and “North Africans” are checked respectively 6 and 8 times more than “Whites”.
The case was first filed in April 2012 by lawyers Slim Ben Achour and Felix de Belloy.