#TBT: Teens Win "Biking While Black" Case

December 18, 2014

With a history of civil liberties stretching back almost a century, the ACLU has got plenty of amazing cases for #TBT. Every Thursday, we'll be sharing updates on cases pulled from our archives of work in Michigan and beyond.

Recent protests from Ferguson to Washington D.C. have reminded us that we can’t move forward until our national leaders address the vestiges of racial violence and de-humanization, particularly in law enforcement, that still exist today.

It brought to mind 22 Michigan teenagers who stood up against racial profiling in our state. While we wait for national leaders to take action, we all must continue to work for racial justice in our own backyard.

ACLU of Michigan Settles “Biking While Black” Case; Teens Finally Given Closure

May 30, 2006

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan announced today that its“bicycling while black” lawsuit, filed eight years ago on behalf of 22 teenagers, has finally been settled in an out-of-court agreement.

The $160,000 settlement comes after a federal court ruled that there was enough evidence of racial discrimination and illegal searches by the Eastpointe Police Department to take the case to a jury trial.

“This settlement is a very positive step forward for the City of Eastpointe, as well as for our clients,” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss. “Racial profiling has been a long-standing problem in this country and it is critical that we address it within our own backyards. We hope that this agreement we are now announcing will serve as a model for other communities as well as a deterrent to the humiliating practice of racial profiling.”

Each of the youth involved in the case had been stopped by an Eastpointe police officer while riding their bikes. The legal challenge to the racial profiling practice began after a 1996 memorandum instructed officers to investigate any black youth riding through Eastpointe, a predominantly white city. The children represented were pulled over, questioned and searched. Bikes were sometimes confiscated and later auctioned off by the police department.

The bicyclists also said police used racial slurs and told them to get their “black asses” back to the other side of Eight Mile Road. Some bicyclists were even physically escorted across the road, which is the notorious dividing line between predominantly black Detroit and mostly white Eastpointe.

"Teenagers stopped from riding their bikes in Eastpointe had their constitutional rights violated,” said Charles Chomet, an attorney with the law firm of Kelman Loria who filed the case in 1998 and served as co-counsel to the ACLU. “I am pleased that at long last this injustice has been recognized.”

Police logs and reports in Eastpointe identified over 100 similar incidents between 1995 and 1998 in which black youth, ages 11-18, were detained. Eastpointe has denied that any of the stops were improper.

In June 2005, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court decision, which had ruled in favor of the officers. The appellate court indicated that the pat-down searches, hand-cuffs, the seizing of the bicycles and subsequent detention in the back seat of a police car are unreasonable and unconstitutional.

In the three-judge panel opinion, Judge Boyce F. Martin, Jr., wrote, “…we are both frustrated and concerned with what appears to be consistent disregard for basic Fourth Amendment principles by the Eastpointe Police Department and its officers ... Counsel may shout ‘officer safety’ until blue-in-the-face, but the Fourth Amendment does not tolerate, nor has the Supreme Court or this Court ever condoned pat-down searches without some specific and articulable facts to warrant a reasonable officer in the belief that the person detained was armed and dangerous.”

After the lawsuit was filed, the department has also instituted racial diversity training for all officers.

“I am very happy that I can finally close the chapter on this part of my life. It was a really tough time for me as a 13-year-old and I just hope that no other child has to go through this,” said Marcus Simpson, one of the represented bicyclists. Marcus was 13 at the time his bike was seized by police and will soon graduate from Bowling Green State University.

ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg and cooperating attorney Mark Finnegan argued this case.

Read the Appeals Court decision