Federal judge weighing suit over traffic stop
The case, brought as part of the ACLU of Louisina’s Justice Lab, revolves around a stop conducted in June of 2020 by two officers who were working a paid detail for the Hurstville Security District in uptown New Orleans.
Lawyers representing police officers who are accused of racially profiling and pulling guns on several young Black males who were searching for a lost dog argued in federal court Wednesday that the officers didn’t violate the constitution and are entitled to qualified immunity from the civil rights claims.
The case, brought as part of the ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab, revolves around a stop conducted in June of 2020 by two officers who were working a paid detail for the Hurstville Security District in uptown New Orleans.
It has raised questions about officer accountability in New Orleans’ seemingly unique security districts, which function as private security forces in specific neighborhoods and are funded by the property taxes of residents, and are not subject to the conditions of the New Orleans Police Departments long-running consent decree.
In front of Eastern District of Louisiana Judge Eldon Fallon, attorneys for officers Kevin Wheeler and Ramon Pierre and their supervisors, framed the entire encounter as a routine stop that was warranted given what they described as frequent car burglaries and carjackings in the neighborhood and that the officers had “reasonable suspicion to suspect that something might be afoot.”
They denied that there was any racial profiling, noting that the car was driving slowly, and that the passengers were alleged by the officers to have been “hanging out the window.”
“Driving slowly at night is not a race-based issue,” said Mark Hanna, one of the attorneys representing the officers. “The vehicle being registered to an address many miles away in New Orleans East is not a race based issue….They’ve offered no facts to establish that there was any racial profiling.”
The plaintiff, Bilal Hankins, has denied that anyone was hanging out the window, and that all three were wearing seatbelts. Chris Andrews, an attorney for the plaintiff, told the judge the stop was meritless.
“There was nothing to investigate,” Andrews said.
The stop occurred one evening after Hankins, who was 18 at the time, who filed the suit, and two friends, who were 12 and 21, approached Wheeler to ask for assistance in finding the dog. Wheeler had been fired from the New Orleans Police Department in 2012, but subsequently hired by the Orleans Levee District Police Department, and was working an off-duty detail for Hurstville.
According to Hankins, he gave Wheeler his home address, and asked him to let him know if he came across the dog. But Wheeler later told investigators that he did not believe the boys’ story about the dog, saying it “seemed like a ruse to disguise that these kids may have been up to no good.”
Wheeler thought they were acting suspicious by driving slowly around the neighborhood. After running the license plate, he found that the car was registered to an address in New Orleans East.
He called another officer, Pierre, who was employed by the Housing Authority of New Orleans police department, and also working a detail for Hurstville in plain clothes and in an unmarked vehicle. The two officers eventually pulled the boys over, and ordered the driver to get out of the car.
Hankins and the others later told investigators that both officers had their guns drawn during the encounter, though one boy later said that only Pierre drew his weapon and Wheeler had a hand on his holstered weapon.
Ina deposition last December, Hankins, who brought the lawsuit, said that Pierre definitely drew his weapon and that Wheeler had something pointed at the car, but he wasn’t certain if it was a gun or a taser. Both officers have denied drawing their weapons.
The officers ultimately determined that the car belonged to the mother of the driver of the car, and let the group go.
In June of 2021, the ACLU of Louisiana filed suit against the officers on behalf of Hankins, alleging that the officers had violated his constitutional rights in conducting the stop and drawing their weapons. The complaint called it a “classic case of racial profiling.”
Andrews, the lawyer for Hankins, said the arguments by the officers that the boys were acting suspicious ignored the fact that they had first approached the officers themselves to explain that they were searching for a lost dog, and that any questions related to their behavior could have been easily attributed to that fact.
“Bilal gave them all the information to explain what they were trying to investigate,” Andrews said.
While attorneys for the officers maintained that they never drew their weapons, they said that even if they had, it was “entirely warranted” given the circumstance.
“It is near midnight,” said Rachel Wisdom, an attorney representing the Housing Authority of New Orleans. “There is a car with young men in it driving very slowly, uptown. They don’t know — the officers — if those young men are armed. They don’t know what those young men are up to.”
To overcome qualified immunity, lawyers for Hankins must show that the officers violated his constitutional rights and that those violations were “clearly established” law at the time of the incident. Lawyers for the officers argued that their actions didn’t amount to constitutional violations.
“They simply have no law,” Hanna said.
The suit claims that the nature of the Hurstville Security District detail system creates a gap in accountability, where the security district rely “entirely and blindly” on the training, protocols, and oversight of outside law enforcement agencies, but those agencies themselves don’t take responsibility of the actions for their officers while working those details.
It names several supervising officers at Hurstville, HANO, and the Orleans Levee District Police Department, alleging that they failed to properly train or supervise Pierre and Wheeler.
“There are three sets of defendants here, all of whom say someone else is responsible for supervising officers Wheeler and Pierre while working a paid detail,” Andrews said Wednesday, arguing that all of them were “deliberately indifferent” to the lack of supervision and training that led to the stop and alleged excessive use of force.
But without any constitutional violation committed by Wheeler or Pierre, lawyers for the defendants argued, there can be no liability for their supervisors.