A Civil-Rights Lawsuit in Mississippi

Sheriff’s deputies left black residents in “a permanent state of siege,” 11 plaintiffs allege in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.

Rogelio V. Solis / AP

Think of a place where driving to work, grocery shopping, attending church, or even stepping outside carries “the very real possibility of unlawful and humiliating searches.”

Living there gives some locals “chronic fear and anxiety.”

That isn’t a description of a foreign police state, or the Deep South before the civil-rights movement. It is how some Americans in 2017 describe life in their community.

The residents of Madison County, Mississippi, are 57 percent white and 38 percent black. All are entitled to the equal protection of the U.S. Constitution. But according to a minister, an army veteran, a law student, a stay-at-home mom, a youth T-ball coach, a carpenter, and five other plaintiffs in a civil-rights lawsuit, black residents are abused by local cops so often that they live in “a permanent state of siege.”

According to the complaint filed by the ACLU, sheriff’s deputies operate roadblocks and pedestrian checkpoints so that some black people cannot even enter or exit their homes without getting searched, violating “the law as well as the most basic norms of decency.” And deputies allegedly enter the homes of some black residents without warrants or consent, sometimes using excessive force and seizing their property.

“These practices force thousands of people to live in fear and under constant threat of being subject to suspicionless searches and arrests simply because of the color of their skin,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

The program of “methodically targeting Black individuals” for suspicionless searches and seizures violates their Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the lawsuit argues.

Why would the Madison County Sheriff’s Department perpetrate abusive policing against black residents? Perhaps for the same reason that white leaders in Madison County participated in chattel slavery, campaigns of anti-black terrorism, and Jim Crow in bygone decades, then resisted desegregation—that is to say, a mix of racism and mercenary concerns.

The practice of “policing for profit” has corrupted law enforcement organizations throughout the United States. And back in 2015, the Department of Justice documented a pattern of policing in Ferguson, Missouri, and surrounding municipalities, whereby officials repeatedly behaved as if their priority was not improving public safety or protecting the rights of residents, but maximizing the revenue that flows into city coffers. Officials sometimes went so far as to anticipate decreasing sales tax revenues and to urge the police force to make up for the shortfall.

The ACLU believes Madison County to be engaged in similarly abusive policing, wherein white officials use the power of government to extract revenue from black residents.

“At roadblocks and pedestrian stops, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department overwhelmingly arrests Black individuals. However, white arrestees are 1.4 times more likely than Black arrestees to be charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. They are 1.1 times more likely to be charged with a drug crime,” according to the civil rights lawsuit. “In contrast, Black arrestees face over 3.2 times the odds for white individuals of being charged only with a petty revenue-generating vehicle infraction, like having a burned out headlight or no seat belt. This data suggests a pattern of population-targeted as opposed to public safety-motivated policing.”

Groups with minority status in elections and a dearth of wealth generally have a hard time ending abuses of this sort. And America’s white majority has never insisted on a Department of Justice that sufficiently protects minority groups from abusive local policing. Under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it is not even clear if the voting rights of minority groups in red states will be protected.

Paloma Wu, the legal director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said of Madison County that “there is a decades-old policy of methodically and systematically targeting black people with Fourth Amendment violations that are unheard of in white communities and in most of the United States.” Neither the Madison County Sheriff’s Department nor county officials have yet responded to the allegations in the press.

If half of what the ACLU and the 11 black residents allege is true, Madison County leaders and sheriff’s deputies are disgracing the core civil values of their country.