Racial justice

  • October 19, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Thomas Nolan, Associate Professor of Criminology, Merrimack College; 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department 

    The statement from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) at their annual conference in San Diego has been described as “historic” and “significant” in acknowledging and apologizing for “actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.”  This apology is “historical” in coming from an organization that has long remained mute in the face of the oppression, racism, discrimination, violence and criminal wrongdoing that have characterized policing for many black and brown men and women in the United States. 

    Terrence Cunningham, the IACP President, offered, “There have been times when law enforcement officers…have been the face of oppression for far too many of our fellow citizens,” but “that this is no longer the case.” (Author emphasis). And so, according to Cunningham, “today’s officers are not to blame for the injustices of the past,” as if what has gone on in Baltimore; Ferguson, Missouri; Chicago; New York City; Cleveland; Waller County, Texas; North Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, DC; Charlotte, North Carolina; Baton Rouge; Tulsa; and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, since 2014, is some distant, forgettable and forgivable part of the history of long ago and far away. 

    Observers and commentators have called Cunningham’s remarks a commendable first step and it is. And one should acknowledge that the IACP necessarily needs to frame its “apology” in terms that are palatable to the 800,000 law enforcement officers who work in the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. Words need to be chosen very carefully so as not to offend the sensitivies of the members of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) who are suffering the debilitating symptoms of the so-called “Ferguson Effect,” while simultaneously fighting the so-called “War on Cops.” 

  • October 12, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Matthew Stanford,  Senior Law Student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law; Articles & Essays Editor of the California Law Review and President of the ACS Student Chapter at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law

    To the surprise of no one, the first presidential debate was short on substance, long on bluster. But one real issue that emerged from the spin-induced haze was the constitutionality of “stop-and-frisk.”

    During the debate, moderator Lester Holt suggested that the controversial and long used police practice of stopping people on the street and patting them down for weapons had been deemed “unconstitutional in New York, because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men.”

    An onslaught of Trump and Clinton surrogates followed with their respective positions on the constitutional upshot of U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s 2013 decision.

    Prognostications about the narrow ruling’s certain demise on appeal––that is, if the appeal had continued to fruition––inevitably led to accusations of moderator bias. Most notably, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani penned an op-ed suggesting that the Second Circuit’s removal of Judge Scheindlin from the case amounted to a reversal of her underlying ruling. To be sure, that logic is flawed: removing a judge is an administrative decision, not a ruling on the merits.

    But a more disturbing trend has emerged from the week’s stop-and-frisk chatter. Far from discussing the merits of the decades-old doctrine that allows police discretion to stop people on the street, the campaigns prefer instead to carry on with the punch and parry about moderator bias and candidate performance––sacrificing yet another critical discussion on the altar of media ratings that has come to define contemporary electoral culture.

  • October 10, 2016

    by Christopher Durocher

    Nearly a decade ago, the Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to take race into account in assigning students to particular schools, even if the goal is to integrate those schools. Chief Justice John Robert’s opinion for the majority dismantled two school districts’ desegregation plans and erected a roadblock to the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. He justified the Court’s holding with the solipsistic truism that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Two cases before the Supreme Court this term present the type of undeniable, explicit racial discrimination that speak directly to the Chief Justice’s colorblind philosophy. How the Court handles these questions of racism will determine the fate of two men and will also highlight the Court’s repeated unwillingness to acknowledge the implicit racism that infects our criminal justice system.

    Pena Rodriguez v. Colorado and Buck v. Davis are cases that in many ways could not be more distinct. Miguel Angel Pena Rodriguez was convicted of three misdemeanors for allegedly attempting to grope two teenage girls. Dwayne Buck was convicted of murder. Mr. Pena Rodriguez was sentenced to two years’ probation and required to register as a sex offender. Mr. Buck was sentenced to death. What they do share are juries that were both infected with explicit appeals to racist stereotypes, which in turn fatally compromised the deliberation process.

    In Mr. Buck’s case, during the penalty phase of the trial his own attorney called an expert witness, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Mr. Buck was more likely to commit crimes in the future because he is Black. In Texas, where Mr. Buck was tried, future dangerousness is an element the jury must unanimously find in order to impose the death penalty. The prosecutor then exploited the expert’s testimony in his closing arguments to convince the jury that Mr. Buck was too dangerous to have his life spared. The jury returned a sentence of death.

    In Pena Rodriguez, the jury was in the midst of heated deliberations, when, according to two jurors’ affidavits, one member of the jury who identified himself as a former law enforcement officer, made a series of racist comments. These included observations that the defendant likely committed the crime because where the juror “used to patrol, nine times out of ten Mexican men were guilty of being aggressive toward women and young girls.” The juror also dismissed an alibi witness, who was also Latinx, because the juror claimed that the witness was an illegal immigrant, though the witness was in fact a legal resident. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on a felony charge, but found Mr. Pena Rodriguez guilty of three misdemeanors.

  • October 7, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Elise C. Boddie, Professor of Law, Henry Rutgers University Professor, Robert L. Carter Scholar

    Buck v. Davis, which was argued in the Court earlier this week, raises a troubling question:  will a person who was sentenced to death, after his trial counsel introduced evidence that his race makes him more likely to be violent, be procedurally barred from raising an ineffective assistance of counsel claim that challenges the constitutionality of that death sentence?  This question is highly technical, but crucially important. At a time when the country is increasingly attentive to grievous racial bias in our criminal justice system, Buck poses a very grave threat to the public’s confidence in the fairness and integrity of the judicial process. [Disclosure:  My former employer, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., represents Mr. Buck.] 

    The facts of Buck alone are deeply disturbing, but the case also raises larger questions about our broader system of justice in matters of race. That this case had to wind its way all the way to the Supreme Court for the possibility of relief, now for the second time, shows how doctrinal and procedural complexities in capital litigation undermine racial justice. It also reveals how differently race is regarded in the criminal justice system when compared to standards of judicial review in civil constitutional litigation. The cavalier treatment of race by the state and lower federal courts in Mr. Buck’s case is wildly inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of equal protection doctrine, which treats any governmental use of race as presumptively unconstitutional, regardless of motive or context. Indeed, in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court twice heard a challenge to a university’s race-conscious admissions policy, even though race had no demonstrable impact on the university’s decision to deny admission to the white plaintiff. There is a tragic irony in the lopsidedness of this judicial scrutiny, where even the faintest consideration of race triggers close review if it threatens to disadvantage a white plaintiff, but the overtly discriminatory use of race—in a way that may have led a black man to be sentenced to death—is buried by courts in procedural technicalities.  

    The case has a lengthy and complicated history, but the core facts are as follows:  Mr. Buck was convicted of capital murder. During sentencing, his court-appointed counsel introduced expert testimony, exploited later by the prosecution on cross-examination, that Mr. Buck was more likely to commit criminal acts of violence in the future because he is black. Let me repeat that:  Mr. Buck’s own attorney inserted evidence into the sentencing proceedings that Mr. Buck’s race was a legitimate factor for assessing his proclivity for future violence. Texas juries are required to find “future dangerousness” unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt before a defendant can be sentenced to death. There is good reason to believe that this expert testimony —which perpetuates deeply rooted racial stereotypes that black people are predisposed to violence—could have persuaded at least one Texas juror that the death sentence was justified for Mr. Buck. If the Court agrees, it could clear the path for Mr. Buck to challenge the constitutionality of that sentence. (He is not challenging his conviction.)

  • October 3, 2016
    Guest Post

    by Shira Scheindlin, former Senior Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, of Counsel, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP

    The issue of policing arose during the recent presidential debate. This issue is one of great importance throughout the country – particularly in light of a number of recent and documented shootings by police of unarmed African American and Hispanic victims. As the former federal judge who ruled on the constitutionality of stop and frisk as used in New York City, I write to clarify a number of the misstatements or misconceptions that have tainted this debate.

    Based on the evidence of racial bias presented during the 2013 trial in Floyd v. New York City, over which I presided, I found that stop and frisk – as practiced in New York – was unconstitutional. In a separate opinion, I directed a series of remedies to address the problem. It ordered very specific reforms that would result in the constitutional use of stop and frisk.

    There is no question that the use of stop and frisk is permitted by the Constitution as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court in Terry v.Ohio. The Court held that a stop can be made when an officer has “reasonable suspicion” that a person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime. The Court later held that in order to conduct a frisk, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that a person is armed and dangerous. If a stop and frisk is done in accordance with these principles then it will pass constitutional muster.

    But this is not what happened in New York, when the numbers of stops and frisks began to climb dramatically from approximately 2004 to 2012. In those years more than 4.4 million stops were made and it appears that most were not based on the required reasonable suspicion. This conclusion was reached by an examination of (1) the uncontested statistical evidence; (2) the testimony of experts who analyzed more than 4.4 million stops to determine whether there was racial bias; (3) institutional evidence of deliberate indifference (including the unconscious racial biases or indirect racial profiling exhibited by police officers) and (4) the examples of individual stops by selected plaintiffs who were members of the Floyd class.