A Federal Lawsuit Challenges Blatantly Unconstitutional Anti-Crime Checkpoints in Jackson, Mississippi
"You can't treat everyone like a criminal to find the criminals," an outraged driver says. In Jackson, apparently you can.
Archie Skiffer Jr., who lives in Mendenhall, Mississippi, delivers food for DoorDash in nearby Jackson, the state capital, on weekday evenings. That side gig has been complicated recently by the anti-crime checkpoints that the Jackson Police Department (JPD) is using to catch "individuals with outstanding warrants" and other lawbreakers. Skiffer's experience with the JPD's "Ticket, Arrest, Tow" (TAT) program, which he and several other plaintiffs are challenging in a federal lawsuit filed yesterday, illustrates the impact of these blatantly unconstitutional roadblocks, which stop drivers without any evidence that they have committed traffic violations or otherwise broken the law.
"In his capacity as a food delivery driver, Mr. Skiffer does not feel he can afford to regularly encounter JPD's TAT roadblocks," says the complaint, which was filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ). "When he learned of the practice through the press, he prepared to drive alternate routes or out of his way to avoid them. He has been using an app to monitor roadblock placement since TAT launched, and while driving in majority-Black and low income neighborhoods in Jackson, he has intentionally altered his route to avoid encountering multiple reported JPD checkpoints. He has seen the checkpoints as they were being set up. He has made food deliveries to people in these neighborhoods who have told him they would be driving themselves to get food for their families, but they do not want to sit at roadblocks."
The MCJ is seeking an injunction on behalf of Skiffer and other drivers who have likewise had to either put up with the indignity and delay caused by Jackson's suspicionless stops or go out of their way to avoid them. During the stops, police demand that drivers produce their licenses and proof of insurance. They ticket drivers who lack those documents and tow their cars. If police discover that people have outstanding warrants or are illegally carrying firearms, they make arrests. The lawsuit, which the MCJ wants the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi to certify as a class action, argues that the checkpoints violate the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.
"We cannot sanction stops justified only by the generalized and ever-present possibility that interrogation and inspection may reveal that any given motorist has committed some crime," the Supreme Court said in the 2000 case Indianapolis v. Edmond. Or as a driver who last week refused to produce his license and proof of insurance at a JPD checkpoint put it, "You can't treat everyone like a criminal to find the criminals." Yet city officials have made it clear that is exactly what is happening in Jackson.
"We come across some of these violent criminals who are wanted," a JPD spokesman said on February 16, according to the complaint. "That is the purpose of us having these checkpoints." He explained that the goal is to tackle Jackson's "crime problem."
Police Chief James Davis confirmed that the TAT program is aimed at catching criminals, precisely the purpose that the Supreme Court said is a constitutionally unacceptable motive for suspicionless stops. "We are doing everything we can to keep Jackson safe," he said on February 18. "We've got individuals with outstanding warrants that [are] wanted, and we're looking to bring them to justice."
That rationale is plainly inconsistent with the Supreme Court's ruling in Edmond, which said the Fourth Amendment does not allow suspicionless stops for the "primary purpose" of the "general interest in crime control." Responding to criticism of the roadblocks by local residents and the ACLU of Mississippi, Davis again admitted that his department is ignoring that holding. "They took it wrong, like there's something that we're targeting a certain group of people," he said. "Our intent is to get wanted individuals off the streets."
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a self-described progressive who supposedly is committed to "human rights for human beings," is similarly unfazed by the police department's Fourth Amendment violations. "These roadblocks are important when we've had communities that have been plagued by car jackings, plagued by various forms of violence," he said on February 14. "These are useful tools to the police department to help mitigate some of those concerns."
Davis and Lumumba are both black, as are most of Jackson's police officers and residents. But as the MCJ lawsuit emphasizes, the TAT program "has led to the disproportionate placement of vehicular roadblocks, or checkpoints, in majority-Black and low-income neighborhoods." And that isn't the only way in which the checkpoints disproportionately affect African Americans.
The named plaintiffs in the lawsuit include an interracial couple: Lauren Rhoades, "a 32-year-old white woman," and LaQuenza Morgan, "a 33-year-old mixed-race African American man." Their experiences with the JPD's checkpoints, which the department was using periodically even before the official launch of the TAT program last month, have been markedly different.
Rhoades reports that she "is often waved through" checkpoints "without having to stop or speak to the officer or provide any documentation." When she is asked for ID, she "usually holds it up and the officer looks at it without taking it in hand, and then the officer waves her through without requesting she show proof of insurance."
Morgan, by contrast, told the Associated Press "he can't recall officers ever waving him through without checking his license." When he was "asked if he thinks he faces more scrutiny because he's Black," he replied, "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah—100 percent."
Anita Gibbs, a 58-year-old black woman, "has gone through numerous JPD checkpoints in recent years, all in majority-Black and low-income areas of Jackson," the complaint says. Last week, "she went through one JPD roadblock on Ellis Avenue on her way to pick up her daughter, showing her valid license and current insurance card." On her way home with her daughter, Gibbs encountered "a different JPD roadblock blocking the other lane of Ellis Avenue" that "was set up between her and her home." Because "the thought of being delayed and disrespected by having go through a second JPD roadblock that day, with her daughter, was too much," she "took a longer way home." Gibbs said her experiences with the checkpoints reminded her "how it felt to be a girl walking in downtown Jackson when she was not allowed to go into certain stores or was treated differently when she did."
Davis bragged last week that "we done made over 100 felony arrests since we started in January." But even if Jackson police were treating white and black drivers exactly the same, their suspicionless stops and "papers, please" demands would be inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment, regardless of how many felons they have managed to apprehend.
"Just as the police cannot walk in every home to search for evidence of a crime or stop and delay every citizen walking down the street to pat them down for drugs or illegal weapons or check their drivers licenses to see if they are wanted for a crime, they cannot do the same with every motorist on the public roads," the lawsuit notes. "If they could, they might make more arrests for criminal activity, but our security in our homes and our freedom to go about our business in public would be very restricted. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Supreme Court has made it clear that wholesale stops of the kind being employed in Jackson are unreasonable."