Case of Black St. Tammany Parish resident illegally searched will proceed to trial
NEW ORLEANS – In a significant victory for police accountability in Louisiana, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling in the case of ACLU of Louisiana Justice Lab client Bruce Washington, a 54-year-old Black man and St. Tammany Parish resident who was illegally frisked by St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Alexander Thomas during an unnecessary traffic stop. The Fifth Circuit’s ruling allows the case to proceed to trial and requires the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office to pay for Mr. Washington’s costs associated with the appeal.
“This is a huge win for Mr. Washington and all Louisianans,” said Nora Ahmed, ACLU of Louisiana legal director. “The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office should immediately cease engaging in the practice of targeting people of color for frivolous traffic violations and using them as a pretext to conduct invasive and unconstitutional searches aimed at entrapping law-abiding citizens.”
On March 13, 2021, Mr. Washington was pulled over and told by an officer that he had failed to use a turn signal, which Mr. Washington denied. The officer threatened Mr. Washington and his passenger, Gregory Lane, saying that he was going to make the traffic stop “go a different way than it has to be,” and instructed both men to step out of the vehicle. Mr. Washington and Mr. Lane were subjected to a pat-down search under coercion, verbally accosted, and then ticketed for making an improper turn and failing to use a turn signal.
“Despite what the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly argued, a black man driving at night and calmly asking questions of police during a traffic stop does not create reasonable suspicion that he is armed and dangerous, and therefore subject to search without his consent,” said Linklaters Senior Associate, Elizabeth Raulston. “The arguments of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office in this case only perpetuate the racist stereotype that black men are inherently dangerous - and we’re pleased that these arguments have failed at every stage of this litigation.”
The Fifth Circuit’s decision is the latest victory for ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab program, which has filed more than 50 cases throughout the state against law enforcement agencies since launching in 2020. Washington et al. v Smith et al. is brought by the ACLU and Linklaters LLP. For more information, visit aclujusticelab.org.