The ACLU isn't only taking President Trump to court.
On Monday morning, the legal organization that has made opposition to Trump a key part of its mission went in another direction — but one with potential implications for the coming years — by suing a Mississippi sheriff's department and county to put a stop to alleged civil rights violations by the law enforcement there.
The class-action lawsuit alleges that the policies violate federal civil rights laws and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. The suit is a major effort and is backed by some of the ACLU's top national lawyers — suggesting this could be a sign of things to come from the ACLU should the Trump Justice Department pull back from the Obama administration's efforts at policing law enforcement.
"The various unconstitutional racially discriminatory policing practices that comprise the Policing Program range in scope and severity," the lawsuit claims, "but they are all conducted pursuant to the [Madison County Sheriff Department]'s single overarching policy, custom, and/or practice of systematically conducting unreasonable searches and seizures of persons, homes, cars, and property on the basis of race."
The Justice Department in the Obama administration — under both of his attorneys general, Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch — aggressively pursued investigations of police departments under its civil rights authority, often reaching consent decrees — court-enforced settlements — to attempt to remedy alleged violations of the law.
Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has criticized the effects on police departments and suggested that the department will review existing consent decrees.
In Monday's lawsuit against Madison County, Mississippi, the ACLU — joined by pro bono counsel at Simpson Thacher — alleges that "[f]or at least two decades, if not longer, the MCSD has implemented a coordinated top-down program of methodically targeting Black individuals for suspicionless searches and seizures."
The lawsuit specifically compares the Madison County practices to those found in two of the Obama-era police investigations — of Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, police departments. The director of the ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, Ezekiel Edwards, and the director of the ACLU's Trone Center for Justice and Equality, Jeffery Robinson, are two of the national organization's lawyers on the complaint.
The 86-page lawsuit alleges the sheriff's office operates a series of roadblocks, pedestrian stops, "warrantless and consentless" searches of homes, and "Jump Out" patrols to target members of the black community in black neighborhoods or near "civic institutions frequented by the Black community." The efforts are in some cases pretextual or in others suspicionless, the lawsuit asserts, but all are in violation of the civil rights Madison County's black residents.
For example, the lawsuit alleges that the sheriff's department has operated "a network of pretextual and highly intrusive vehicular roadblocks concentrated in and around the majority Black cities and neighborhoods" of the county.
"The MCSD also sets up semi-concealed roadblocks within the parking lots of Madison County’s majority-Black housing complexes," the lawsuit asserts. "These roadblocks are usually located at the sole operational entry and exit to the complexes."
In addressing the pedestrian checkpoints, "concentrated" in black neighborhoods, the lawsuit claims "the purpose of these pedestrian 'checkpoints' is to conduct a fishing expedition to find any possible basis, no matter how tenuous, for issuing citations to and/or arresting members of the Black community."
Regarding the home searches, the lawsuit alleges that "[t]hese unconstitutional practices include the detention and restraint of Black individuals not suspected of any wrongdoing, and are often accompanied by the use of force."
Specifically, as to two of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the complaint alleges that the sheriff's department forcibly entered a home without a warrant in 2016. Once in the house, "The deputies attempted to coerce Mr. Manning to write a false witness statement against a neighbor's boyfriend. When Mr. Manning refused, one of the deputies handcuffed him, choked him, and beat him in the back seat of an MCSD law enforcement vehicle."
The lawsuit claims that the policies are longstanding and deeply-entrenched programs and that race-based statistical disparities "provide compelling evidence" to back up the claims.
The lawsuit also claim a "policy of inaction" by the Madison County Board of Supervisors that has allowed these practices to continue, calling it "the functional equivalent of a decision by Madison County itself to violate the Constitution."