The ACLU is hailing a recent decision by the Grand Rapids Police Department to end a policy that permitted police officers to arrest innocent people for trespassing at local businesses during operating hours—even when business owners didn’t ask them to leave.
The decision to end the policy—which resulted in African Americans being stopped at more than twice the rate as whites under the initiative—comes after years of litigation brought by the ACLU.
“No one should fear going to jail just because they stop to chat with a friend outside a store or pull into a parking lot to take a phone call,” said ACLU of Michigan senior staff attorney Miriam Aukerman. “We urge the city commission to ensure that this is not just a temporary change in response to new legal rulings, but a permanent end to the Grand Rapids Police Department’s decades-old practice of arresting people, disproportionately people of color, simply for looking out of place.”
Under the department’s new policy, police cannot arrest a person for trespassing unless a representative of the business makes clear that they do not want that particular person on the property and the person has been told to leave.
The changes come on the heels of years of legal action by the ACLU, including a federal lawsuit the group filed in 2013 to stop the practice, which had been in effect for more than two decades. The suit, Hightower v. City of Grand Rapids, was filed after plaintiff Tyrone Hightower was arrested for trespassing while waiting in a parking lot to see if friends had gotten into a bar.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Kirk McConer, was arrested for trespassing after he stopped to talk with a friend outside a store where he had just purchased a soda.
In May 2017, before the federal court could rule on Hightower, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the same issue in a separate case, People v. Maggit, in which the ACLU filed an amicus brief making many of the same arguments raised in Hightower. The Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that the practice was unconstitutional.
On June 9, 2017, the city effectively ended the policy when Grand Rapids officials informed officers that they were now prohibited from carrying it out.
“The Grand Rapids Police Department gave itself a power it should never have had: deciding who belongs on a business’s property and who doesn’t,” said Jason Williamson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “This policy allowed the systematic arrest of innocent people simply trying to go about their daily lives, and the department should assure the people of Grand Rapids that it will never be used again.”
Previously, the department had asked local businesses to sign generic “no trespass letters” and claimed these letters gave police the authority to arrest anyone on the business property without asking the business owner or employees whether the person was allowed to be there, and without the person having been first asked to leave.
Approximately 800 businesses in Grand Rapids signed such letters, although the public does not know which businesses those are.
In People v. Maggit, the court expressed alarm at the practice of arresting people based on these letters, warning that the arrests could reflect “systemic or recurrent police misconduct.” The court rejected the prosecutor’s argument that people are “subject to immediate arrest without warning” at open businesses just because, unbeknownst to the public, the business had signed a no trespass letter.
Julia Kelly, an attorney in both the Maggit and Hightower cases, said: “We hope that the Grand Rapids Police Department is ending the policy not only because the court of appeals said it is illegal, but also because the department recognizes that it must repair its broken relationship with communities of color, who have borne the brunt of this policy.”
The federal court hearing the Hightower case has yet to decide on the legality of the police department’s arrests of Mr. Hightower, Mr. McConer, and the other plaintiffs – all Black men who were arrested and charged with trespassing. Courts have previously determined that none of these plaintiffs had committed a crime.
The federal court dismissed part of the case last Wednesday, but the city’s liability for the plaintiffs’ arrests has yet to be decided.