ACLU of Rhode Island Opposes Providence's Attempt To Avoid Liability in Racial Profiling Case

January 5, 2004 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — In a brief filed before the State Supreme Court today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island challenged the Providence Police Department’s efforts to avoid any financial liability for failing to comply with the state’s racial profiling law and with court orders that had found the department in contempt for non-compliance with that law.

“While Providence would like the public to believe this case is about money, the truth is that it is about serious contemptuous behavior on the police department’s part and their attempt to avoid any punishment for their heinous conduct,” said ACLU volunteer attorney Carolyn Mannis.

Last month, in appealing Judge Stephen Fortunato’s 2002 order finding the city in contempt of court, the city argued that the court had no authority to order it to continue to collect racial profiling data for an additional seven months. The city also asserted that the ACLU never should have been allowed to sue the city in the first place for violating the law and, therefore, the ACLU should not be entitled to recover attorneys’ fees for successfully bringing the lawsuit.

In its opposition papers filed today, the ACLU noted that “contempt is a serious matter left to the discretion of the trial judge. In this case, given the facts and circumstances involved, the lower court acted reasonably in meting out justice in a difficult case. This is especially true here, where the Providence Police have not offered one iota of evidence to contradict the lower court’s finding of contempt.”

The ACLU brief noted that the racial profiling data collection law was specifically designed to allow private civil rights groups to enforce it; if the city’s argument against the ACLU’s litigation were to prevail, police departments could easily circumvent the law. In addition, the ACLU argued that its litigation played a crucial role in ensuring the city’s compliance with the law and that its pursuit of contempt proceedings against the police department finally led to some minimal compliance with the law.

Finally, the brief takes issue with the city’s argument that the ACLU filed the suit for the sole purpose of obtaining fees, pointing out that if the city had begun complying with the law when it received notice of the ACLU lawsuit, “there would be no basis at all for an award of attorney’s fees.” In any event, the brief notes that any fee awards go to the volunteer attorney, not the ACLU.

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