March 21, 2011, New York – Last Friday, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) issued a report finding that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has engaged in “a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct and violations of federal law with respect to discriminatory policing.” The report called unprecedented attention to the experiences of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of color with racial profiling and racially discriminatory police practices by the NOPD. The DOJ specifically highlighted the NOPD’s discriminatory enforcement of Louisiana’s 206 year-old Crime Against Nature (CAN) statute and the targeting of African American women and LGBT people for charges that carry far harsher penalties, such as mandatory sex offender registration, than those imposed under the state’s prostitution statute.
The statute in question is already the subject of a constitutional challenge in a federal lawsuit, Doe v. Jindal, filed in New Orleans last month by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Andrea J. Ritchie, Esq., and the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law on behalf of nine anonymous plaintiffs targeted for arrest under the law by NOPD officers, convicted and forced to register as sex offenders as a result. Superintendent Serpas of the NOPD is a named defendant in the suit.
“The report exposes the virtually unfettered discretion that NOPD officers have in deciding who to stop, search, and charge,” said CCR staff attorney Alexis Agathocleous. “This, combined with little guidance as well as pressure to engage in a high number of stops and arrests, create conditions ripe for abuse and discriminatory policing based on race, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity stereotypes.”
A comprehensive investigation conducted by the DOJ found of a pattern of excessive force, unconstitutional stops, searches, arrests and biased NOPD policing. The report underscored a pattern of discriminatory enforcement under the CAN statute and its sex offender registration requirement, noting that the statute serves no public safety purpose and further marginalizes already vulnerable populations, points also raised in the lawsuit.
“The DOJ report vindicates our clients’ experiences with discriminatory law enforcement in New Orleans,” said Andrea Ritchie, Esq. co-counsel in Doe v. Jindal and co-author of Queer Injustice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, published last month. “It is clear that policies and practices of the NOPD, including the discriminatory enforcement of the Crime Against Nature law, are based on bias and stereotypes and have devastating and discriminatory consequences for our clients and countless other New Orleans residents.”
Doe v. Jindal alleges that differential treatment under the CAN statute is unconstitutional and is conducive to abuse, discriminatory enforcement and police misconduct. The lawsuit further alleges that the onerous sex offender registry requirements have created insurmountable barriers for the plaintiffs seeking much-needed services, housing and employment. In its report, the DOJ found:
[R]easonable cause to believe that NOPD practices lead to discriminatory treatment of LGBT individuals. In particular, transgender women complained that NOPD officers improperly target and arrest them for prostitution, sometimes fabricating evidence of solicitation for compensation. Moreover, transgender residents reported that officers are likelier, because of their gender identity, to charge them under the state’s “crimes against nature” statute—a statute whose history reflects anti-LGBT sentiment. Multiple convictions under the [CAN] statute, unlike Louisiana’s general prostitution statute, require registration as a sex offender. Persons convicted of soliciting crimes against nature make up nearly 40 percent of the Orleans Parish sex offender registry. NOPD is charged with monitoring all registrants’ compliance with sex offender registry requirements, raising questions about efficient and effective use of resources to ensure public safety. Further, for the already vulnerable transgender community, inclusion on the sex offender registry further stigmatizes and marginalizes them, complicating efforts to secure jobs, housing, and obtain services at places like publicly-run emergency shelters. Of the registrants convicted of solicitation of a crime against nature, 80 percent are African American, suggesting an element of racial bias as well. Indeed, community members told us they believe some officers equate being African American and transgendered with being a prostitute.
“The DOJ’s investigation and report are nothing short of a complete affirmation of the systemic violations of constitutional rights New Orleans residents have been experiencing at the hands of the NOPD for decades,” said Professor Davida Finger, co-counsel on the case and Loyola University New Orleans College of Law professor. “We welcome the DOJ’s increased attention to the specific experiences of women and LGBT people of color within the larger framework of race-based policing practices.”
CCR and other rights groups have been calling for the DOJ to conduct more comprehensive investigations of racially biased policing for years, including as recently as 2008, when the U.S. government’s record under the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was last reviewed.