By Chris Levister –
Attorneys representing a group of Moreno Valley barbers raided by police and state Board of Barbering & Cosmetology (BBC) agents in 2008 say the practice of local law enforcement using state agents to conduct intrusive and unjustifiable searches that skirt the Constitution is not isolated to the Riverside County enclave.
“During the course of this litigation, we discovered that these joint actions happen across the state,” said American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California attorney Peter Bibring, who filed the case along with the Los Angeles law firm Seyfarth Shaw. “It’s clear that police departments have repeatedly worked with board inspectors presumably as a way to skirt getting a warrant.” said Bibring in announcing a partial settlement in the civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU in April. “This agreement stops that practice.”
The lawsuit alleges that a group of Black barbers and their patrons were targets of racial profiling when five or six police officers wearing body armor and carrying guns rushed through the businesses under the pretense that they were conducting health and safety inspections. The case watched closely by Constitution experts is the first to challenge how the state board conducts joint inspections with outside law enforcement agencies.
The settlement requires the board to adopt stringent new rules against discrimination and limit joint inspections with local police.
The BBC thinks the agreement is “fair and a good thing,” said Luis Farias, the director of communications for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the board.
Farias said it is routine for police to assist state inspectors, but denied inspectors were serving as proxies of local police. Officials at the state admitted no wrong doing but said they are improving inspection practices.
“I think the settlement is a matter of clarifying things and now it’s clear,” said Farias.
The City of Moreno Valley, its Police Department – whose services are contracted from the Riverside Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff Stanley Sniff were also named in the federal case.
Plaintiff’s attorneys Bibring and Rishi Puri of Seyfarth Shaw stressed that the BBC agreement is a partial settlement. The complaint is seeking monetary damages and similar anti-discrimination protections from the City of Moreno Valley.
“This is a problem one sees across the country—the use of these joint inspections for doing what really amounts to drug sweeps,” said Jamie S. an Oakland barber and retired attorney.
“I think the way they are using state inspectors is unconstitutional.
I think it’s just a way to get around the Fourth Amendment,” he said. “People cited with so called business code violations are compelled to give the city inspector or police officer personal data that is entered into the police department computer base and used for routine criminal investigations. The personal information includes race, marital status, birthdates, home and work telephone numbers, criminal history and even a description of scars and tattoos. Sometimes police simply walk in, explains Atlanta barber Wesley Dennison.
Dennison was standing in his break room in August when he heard a noise at 7:00 am and found a police officer standing in his shop. “I wanted to know who walked in without permission,” he said. “The officer didn’t answer me. He just started walking through the place.”
He said such overly aggressive enforcement of city codes might violate the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unlawful search and seizure.
“If inspectors or police suspect you of something, then they can go to a judge and get an affidavit and then get a search warrant.” Dennison says barbers around the country are watching this case.
“There is a prevailing belief among many of us that what happens in California sets the bar for other states.”
The Moreno Valley Police Department and the city have denied any racial profiling, saying a wide variety of barbershops were raided that week, not just those owned by African-Americans.
They say the raids were prompted by complaints that some barbers were working without licenses and that enforcement of business licenses and building codes is crucial to public safety and help prevent unsanitary and unsafe conditions. “Local municipalities and police departments often adopt their own interpretation of search and seizure laws, and those interpretations are allowed to stand because no one challenges them,” explains Chicago employment and human rights expert Leah Mitka.
“You do need a test case to bring clarity to these things,” Mitka said.
“There’s a huge degree of intimidation at play here. It’s like when you get stopped by a cop, you say ‘yes, sir’ even though you haven’t uttered those words since you were in trouble with your dad or the principal when you were in high school,” she said. “When police show up, people often panic and agree to just about anything.”