The sheriff’s department of Madison County, Mississippi, methodically and often brutally targets black residents with a coordinated system of checkpoints and unconstitutional searches, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged in a federal lawsuit filed Monday.
These alleged tactics have left the black community of Madison “under a permanent state of siege,” the suit says.
In an 86-page complaint, the ACLU of Mississippi and the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP accuse the Madison County Sheriff’s Department of abusing its power to uphold racial segregation and oppression in Mississippi’s wealthiest county.
“For Black residents, Madison County is a Constitution-free zone where their right to equal protection under the law and against unreasonable searches and seizures is nonexistent,” Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said in a statement.
Madison County is approximately 57 percent white and 38 percent black, according to the 2010 Census. The population remains starkly divided along both racial and economic lines, however, with “predominantly Black towns, neighborhoods, and business districts and predominantly white towns, neighborhoods, and business districts,” according to the suit.
The suit alleges that the MCSD targets black areas with a number of legally dubious practices. Deputies routinely set up vehicular roadblocks and pedestrian “checkpoints” around black neighborhoods, where they carry out “intrusive, pretextual, and suspicionless searches and seizures,” according to the suit.
“Passing through these unconstitutionally intrusive roadblocks is fraught with the potential for harassment, intimidation, demeaning searches, baseless citations, and possibly even arrest and subsequent incarceration,” reads the complaint.
The sheriff’s department did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.
The department also engages in warrantless home searches and deploys aggressive “jump out” patrols to harass black people walking through these communities, the suit alleges.
This system of enforcement leads to highly disproportionate arrest figures, according to the suit. Black people are almost five times more likely than white people to be arrested in Madison County, the ACLU says. Between May and October of 2016, 73 percent of all MCSD arrests involved black people. Only 23 percent of arrests during that time were of white people.
The ACLU has used similar statistics to support challenges to controversial police practices around the country. In February, for example, the organization sued the city of Milwaukee, claiming that its police department conducts thousands of illegal stop-and-frisk searches every year, predominantly against black and Latino people.
The ACLU’s Madison suit names 10 plaintiffs who have allegedly faced mistreatment at the hands of the MCSD. One has been stopped at the MCSD’s roadblocks at least 20 times in the previous year, according to the complaint. At least four of the plaintiffs have had their homes raided by MCSD deputies who allegedly entered without warrants. Two of the plaintiffs were severely beaten by officers during confrontations, the suit claims.
The complaint seeks a class-wide judgment declaring the department’s policies unconstitutional. A number of the plaintiffs are also seeking compensatory and punitive damages.
Along with the county, the suit lists MCSD Sheriff Randall Tucker and six unnamed deputies as defendants.
The ACLU accuses Tucker and county officials of turning a blind eye to the historic use of discriminatory tactics within the department. The complaint also claims that Tucker has expanded a number of the most disturbing practices, such as the use of “unconstitutional racially discriminatory roadblocks.”
“The Madison County Sheriff’s Department’s policing program has a long history of treating Black people differently and targeting them for baseless, invasive, and often violent police stops,” Riley-Collins said. “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.”
Read the entire ACLU complaint here.