October 8, 2020 — A pro bono team in Hughes Hubbard's Paris office is representing several victims of police brutality in parallel civil and criminal proceedings that mark the latest chapter in the years-long battle against racial profiling in France.
The team is supported by Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI), the operational program of the Open Society Foundations, a philanthropic organization founded by billionaire investor George Soros. Since 2003, OSJI has represented scores of individuals and groups before domestic and international courts around the world in cases that have sought not only to vindicate individual claims, but to establish and strengthen the law's protection for all.
In the civil proceeding, the team represents 17 plaintiffs seeking damages against the French state for systemic racism in policing. On Sept. 30, the team argued before the first Chamber of the Paris Court of Appeal that the misuse of identity verification procedures has led to arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, abuse of authority and violence in Paris police stations.
In the criminal proceeding, the team is representing two victims in an appeal by three police officers convicted of assaulting them in a Parisian neighborhood when they were teenagers. The verdict in this case will be rendered on Oct. 23.
The conviction stems from a collective complaint of 44 allegations filed in December 2015 by 18 young people aged 14 to 23 filed against 11 police officers. The allegations included verbal, physical and sexual assault during unjustified identity checks, intense frisks, arbitrary arrests and discrimination. This was the first such collective action in France to tackle abusive identity checks, a problem that disproportionately affects young people of African and Arab origin.
Ultimately, only three complaints against four police officers proceeded to trial in February 2018. Yassine M., who was 17 at the time of the incident, accused one of slapping him after bringing him "for no reason" to the police station in July 2014 and another of punching him in the face six months later. Julie B., 14 at the time of the July 2015 incident, said police sprayed her with tear gas and hit her thigh with a baton as they responded to complaints about young people listening to loud music in a public square in the center of the 12th arrondissement of Paris.
In April 2018, the Paris Criminal Court handed three of the officers a suspended prison sentence of five months. The fourth officer was acquitted "in the absence of sufficient evidence." The convicted officers appealed the decision. The three officers were ordered to each pay 2,000 euros to the victims for moral damage.
Felix de Belloy, who leads the HHR team, previously worked with OSJI to win five landmark decisions before the Paris Court of Appeals against the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, for abusive identity checks based on racial profiling.
In June 2015, the appeals court found rights violations in five of the 13 cases it reviewed, ruled that discriminatory ID checks are illegal and ordered the French government to pay damages to the plaintiffs. The Court of Cassation in Paris, France's highest court, affirmed the ruling in November 2016, clearing the way for fundamental changes in French police practices.
In addition to de Belloy, Laureen Bokanda-Masson is working on this case.
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