Federal lawsuit charges inequity in Buffalo traffic checkpoints

Jun 29, 2018

A lawsuit is being filed in federal court now challenging the city of Buffalo's saturation traffic stops conducted in high crime neighborhoods.

The Western New York Law Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and The National Center for Law and Economic Justice filed suit Thursday seeking an end to the practice, and damages for several plaintiffs that have already signed on board to the case.

"I want to see the city of Buffalo understand that we are people," says plaintiff Dorthea Franklin." That government can not use people to balance their budget. We don't need people to tell us when we can come, and go and leave or stay. I don't want my children to grow up knowing that there is still descrimination in 2018"

The complaint seeks to " obtain an injunction ending and remediating the City’s unlawful and discriminatory traffic enforcement practices... financial harm, humiliation, and loss of liberty and property that these invasive and punitive traffic stops have imposed over the years.  

READ THE COMPLAINT 

For five years the city has stepped up traffic enforcement in high crime neighborhoods, using the stops as a way to ultimately enforce other more serious drug or gun crimes. The practice is the subject of an earlier study by Cornell University, with a complaint pending before the New York State Attorney General and a separate lawsuit against the city pending in State Supreme Court.   Data gathered for that case suggested that 91.4 percent of the stops in Buffalo occur in mostly poorer, minority neighborhoods.

A map showing traffic stops in the city of Buffalo, clustered in poorer, minority neighborhoods
Credit New Economy Project

  "If you look at the data over these many years, it clearly shows the police department is not accurate in saying that the do it everywhere. The overwhelming majority is being done in overwhelmingly  black neighborhoods and these traffic checkpoints don't seem to have any correlation to traffic safety," says Attorney Darius Charney, with the Center for Constitutional Rights

Buffalo Police declined to comment, issuing a statement saying it is city policy not to do so on pending litigation.   

Several court cases across the United States have debated the use of traffic stops in high crime neighborhoods. In many cases, police agencies have argued that there can be a likelihood of illegal gun use in high crime neighborhoods and have used a "Zero Tolerance" policy on un-related traffic violations as a way to crackdown on those other un-related crimes.

In a news conference Thursday, plaintiff Taniqua Simmons, an activist and former Libertarian candidate for Mayor of the City of Buffalo, said that the practice has done great harm in the poorer communities, where escalating fines and inability to pay becomes a growing issue for someone who can barely afford to keep a car on the road.

 "You need to repair your car. You don't have the money this week, you need it next week, but in the meantime, you've gone through a checkpoint, you can't pay the ticket, still need to get your car fixed, and then your license is suspended. That's trauma. That's financial descrimination. They know that they can't afford it. They have the data that these are the poorest communities, but they did it anyway."