National Civil Rights groups seek class status in lawsuit against Buffalo Police for discriminatory traffic stops

Four years ago, in an effort to end or at least reduce the number of traffic tickets written by members of the Buffalo Police Department, Mayor Byron Brown initiated a system in which officers had to issue “stop tickets” or “stop receipts” whenever someone was pulled over and in which officers had to record the race of the person that was stopped.

This was at the same time as the Black Lives Matter marches following the death of George Floyd and when two members of the Buffalo Police Department were investigated for the caught-on-camera incident in which an elderly activist appeared to be pushed down in front of City Hall, fracturing the man’s skull.

The practices intended to reduce a kind of racial profiling among traffic stops has not worked as designed, according to a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York by Black Love Resists in the Rust, a community activism organization, and others “individually and on behalf of a class of all other similarly situated,” against the City of Buffalo.

For more than a decade, Buffalo police officers have targeted Black and Latino drivers for “aggressive, punitive traffic enforcement." City policymakers sought to transform a limited legal license to undertake administrative traffic checkpoints into a crime investigative and suppression strategy, in contravention of Fourth Amendment principles, which prohibit officers from imposing burdensome seizures on citizens merely in the hopes of ferreting out crime; the strategy also contravened Fourteenth Amendment principles that proscribe the racially discriminatory assumption underlying the City’s policy, namely that Black and Latino citizens are more prone to commit crimes,” according to the lawsuit, filed on May 29.

These discriminatory practices, the lawsuit continues, are a large part of the city’s “longstanding scheme to generate revenue on the backs of the poorest, least politically powerful people in Buffalo and are a continuation of the city’s deep and troubled history of racial discrimination.”

As reported by Dan Tevlock in 2022, with two years of data on the new requirements handed down by Mayor Brown in June 2020, officers were not recording the race of the persons they stopped for a traffic report or ticket in one-quarter of the stops made. An investigation from Channel 4 and Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab further found Black people were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by BPD officers than white drivers; when the city’s demographic information was considered and the driver’s race was unknown, Black drivers were still two times more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.

A similar investigation conducted by WBFO looking at traffic stop receipts issued between June 2020 and June 2023 found Black drivers were more than three times more likely to be stopped compared to white drivers.

The lawsuit is seeking class status for all affected Black and Latinx drivers in Buffalo who were ticketed or arrested at a city-run checkpoint since 2015 or if they have received multiple tickets for “having tinted windows in a practice where officers issue a separate ticket for each tinted window on a vehicle. One class also includes all Black and Latinx drivers who have been or could be subjected to traffic stops, and seeks structural remedial, accountability and oversight measures to ensure an end to these harmful and discriminatory practices.”

This case is a continuation of a lawsuit originally filed in June 2018 on behalf of Black Love Resists in the Rust and individuals by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Western New York Law Center and the firm of Covington & Burling, LLP.

“These blatantly unconstitutional practices targeting Black and Latinx residents are a part of Buffalo’s long and sordid history of discrimination and are designed to harvest revenue for the city budget off the backs of Buffalo’s poorest residents,” says Anjana Malhotra, a senior attorney at the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, in a statement released Monday. “We are requesting the court certify our proposed classes so that we can seek relief, system-wide reform, and a voice for the minority communities whose civil rights were and continue to be violated by the city of Buffalo and the Buffalo Police Department on a daily basis.”

The updated lawsuit also contains three expert reports and a statistical report, in addition to police practices reports and a historical expert report. Attorneys on behalf of the plaintiffs say that while the city would typically have two weeks to respond, additional time will be provided based on the amount of evidence included in the latest filing.

The full 60-page lawsuit can be read here.

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Gallery Credit: Yasmin Young

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