Lawyers for 15 French people, either black or of Arab descent, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the state for abusive identity checks based on alleged racial profiling.
A lawyer for the group said they were routinely targeted for police identity checks that often included humiliating public body pat downs, insults and even threats because of the way they look.
The plaintiffs' lawyers said this was the first such collective action in France to tackle abusive identity checks, a problem documented by several studies. The lawsuit against the French state targets the Interior Ministry, which oversees police.
The 15 were subjected to police checks between September and February. Their names were among those who responded to a hotline set up by the collective Stop Racial Profiling for people who felt they were unjustly checked by police.
The lawyers conceded that it is hard to prove that a police check constitutes racial profiling because there is no written evidence that a check was warranted or that one even occurred. The aim of the action is to ensure guidelines for police checks and a police report for each check carried out.
The people who brought the action have no police records, but were subjected to police identity checks, body searches, insults, humiliation because to police they appeared suspicious because of their skin color or origin, attorney Felix de Belloy said.
"When they ask why, the police say, 'shut up," de Belloy said at a news conference at the Justice Palace after filing the suit. "It is essential to understand that this is not the law ... This practice is discriminatory and must end."
The lawyers estimated that because this is a civil action the case would likely not go to court for some 18 months. The Interior Ministry sought more time when asked earlier to respond to their complaint, the lawyers said.
One of the plaintiffs, a 32-year-old black who identified himself by his first name only, Bocar, said police grabbed him as he left the family home in the northern Paris working class suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis even though he was with a younger sister and brother.
They "put me in front of a wall and ... said 'If you don't cooperate we'll Taser you,' waving the Taser gun at him, he said. They then patted him down.
That experience, one of several checks, was "particularly violent and abusive," Bocar said.
The legal action is backed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Union of French Lawyers and the Stop Racial Profiling group.
A study conducted in Paris by the Open Society Justice Initiative with France's National Center for Scientific Research showed that blacks have six times more chance of being subjected to police checks than whites and those of Arab origin have eight times more chance.
A report Human Rights Watch on abusive identity checks, released in January, said that black and Arab men and boys as young as 13 were singled out for abusive identity checks. That report was based on dozens of interviews in Paris, Lyon and Lille.
"The legal framework is too broad," said Lanna Hollo, a lawyer for Open Society Justice Initiative. "There is no record of the check so that means there is no possibility to know why or to do anything about it."
Identity checks, she said, "should be based on suspicious behavior, not appearance," she said.
The lawyers would like the searches to be based on "objectively reasonable suspicious behavior," Hollo said.
Axiom, a 37-year-old militant rapper who is a member of the collective, said he has been controlled by police about 100 times in his lifetime, particularly in his youth, but has no police record.
"We cannot prove we've been controlled or how often," he said, adding that such checks are common in heavily immigrant working class neighborhoods.
"The people we represent are considered citizens of the second zone," said attorney Slim Ben Achour. "They have a right not to be reduced to their color."