PARIS — Thirteen people who claim they have been targeted by French police for identity checks, often with humiliating public pat-downs, because they're black or of Arab descent went to court Wednesday to seek reparations and a change in police guidelines.
Their case is billed as a first of its kind in France where anti-racism groups have repeatedly claimed that non-white French face wide-ranging discrimination that diminishes their chances at finding jobs, getting into night clubs or carving out a place for themselves in the mainstream.
The plaintiffs who appeared in the Paris courtroom for the one-day trial — but did not take the stand — range from students to delivery personnel. One is an athlete. None has a police record, but all claim they are subjected to ID checks because of the way they look.
A study conducted in Paris by the Open Society Justice Initiative with France's National Center for Scientific Research has shown that blacks have six times more chance of police checks than whites and those of Arab origin eight times more.
The New York Police Department is facing similar allegations that police stop and frisk people based on race. New York police have made about 5 million stops in the past decade, most of them involving black and Hispanic men. In a high-profile case, four men filed suit contending that hundreds of thousands of those stops were unconstitutional. They want a monitor to oversee changes to police department training, supervision and policy.
The French legal action is backed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Union of French Lawyers and the Stop Racial Profiling group, which say the case is unprecedented in France.
"You can't arrest someone because he wears a hoodie and walks fast," said plaintiff Niane Bocar, 34, who was subject to an ID check in November 2011 in the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen when he was leaving the house with his two younger sisters, a hoodie covering his head.
A police officer put him against a wall, he recounted later, showed him a Taser and threatened him with it.
"In this action, we're targeting this system," he said.
Another plaintiff, Regis Amponsah, 22, says he is subjected to ID checks about every two days. He and two friends are among the 13 plaintiffs for what they claim was a gratuitous check in December 2011 at La Defense, a high rise commercial district west of Paris.
"It's tiring," Amponsah said of the constant checks he undergoes, in which he sometimes is ordered to take off his shoes. "It's humiliating because it's in front of everybody (when) I know I'm doing nothing wrong."
Plaintiffs are seeking 10,000 euros ($13,000) each in this case. The state, which is targeted in the proceedings, contests the notion that any damages are due and maintains the ID checks in question were legal.
The verdict is expected Oct. 2, but lawyer Slim Ben Achour said a negative decision won't stop them because "we'll go to the end with appeals."
Racial profiling is illegal in France, but French law allows for widespread police checks on people deemed suspicious. Opponents say the category is too vague and gives police too much discretion. Lawyers representing the 13 hope for a change in the law so that it spells out "objective grounds" for an ID check. They also want police to provide a written report that makes each check traceable.
For state prosecutor Sylvie Kachaner, "the controls were perfectly authorized" under Article 78-2 of the Penal Code. As for targeting neighborhoods where blacks and other minorities often live, she rhetorically asked the court, "Who's to blame police ... for being more interested in neighborhoods where they know there are problems?"
She said rival gangs are known to frequent La Defense, where Amponsah and his two friends were stopped. Ensuring public order is "totally legitimate," she said.
Discrimination against minorities in France became a national issue after fiery riots in 2005 that hopscotched through suburban housing projects, where a majority of residents or their families come from former French colonies in Africa. The rioting revealed a simmering anger by suburban minorities isolated from mainstream life, fanned in part by gratuitous stopping and frisking.
The unrest served as a wake-up call to the government, which pledged to better integrate minorities and renovate run-down projects. But anti-racism groups contend that the programs lacked ambition and have failed to guarantee equality for non-white citizens.
The original lawsuit was filed in April 2012 against the state. At the time, lawyers conceded that it's no easy task to prove that a police check constitutes racial profiling, because there is no written evidence that a check was warranted or that one even occurred.
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