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Brown v. City of Oneonta (Challenging role of race in police stops)

This case concerns the constitutional limits on the use of race when law-enforcement officials stop and question individuals. In the early morning of Sept. 4, 1992, Oneonta police received a report of an attempted burglary and assault committed a few hours earlier at a private residence. The complaint asserted that the assault was undertaken by a young black man. Over the next five days, from Sept. 4 to Sept. 9, state and local police officers sought to detain for questioning and physical examination every African-American they could locate in and around the City of Oneonta, starting with students at Oneonta State University. In several instances, doing so entailed pulling cars over for no reason (save for the fact that the car was occupied by an African-American man) and preventing African-Americans from boarding buses at the Oneonta bus terminal unless and until they submitted to questioning and physical inspection. Plaintiffs brought suit in federal court claiming that the dragnet undertaken by police officials amounted to a racially discriminatory practice in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The District Court dismissed plaintiffs’ Equal Protection claim reasoning that the Equal Protection Clause is “essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated be treated alike” and that plaintiffs had failed to allege that a “similarly situated class of non-minorities” had been treated differently in the past. The Second Circuit affirmed on other grounds, concluding that no intentional discrimination occurred because the complaint only alleged that the stops rested upon a race-based identification offered by a victim.

In support of a petition for rehearing filed by the plaintiffs, the NYCLU joined an amicus brief along with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Center for Constitutional Rights. The amicus brief argued, inter alia, that the Second Circuit panel confused the concept of intentional discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause with the concept of “invidious” discrimination; that under the Equal Protection Clause, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in the affirmative action and redistricting cases, any race-based decision-making triggers “heightened judicial scrutiny”; and that, so understood, the conduct of the police officials in Oneonta was race-based; and that when measured against the requirements of “heightened judicial scrutiny,” the conduct must be found impermissible because it was not “narrowly tailored” in the pursuit of important state interests. The Second Circuit denied the petition for rehearing on Dec. 18, 2000.

At this point, counsel for the plaintiffs asked the NYCLU to enter the case directly and to file a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court, which it did on May 17, 2001. In that petition, which was joined by the ACLU, the NYCLU contended first that, contrary to the conclusion of the Second Circuit, the complaint had to be read to allege that law-enforcement officials had stopped a large number of African-Americans solely on the basis of their race and to the exclusion of nonracial information (e.g. gender and age) provided to the police. We then argued that such actions implicated the Equal Protection Clause. On Oct. 1, 2001, the Supreme Court denied the petition. Through their original counsel, the plaintiffs continued to pursue action in the Court of Claims. .

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