Michigan Supreme Court Says Photographing, Fingerprinting People Without Probable Cause Is Unconstitutional

from the because-of-course-it-is dept

The only surprise in this decision isn’t that the court ruled the way it did. It’s that the Grand Rapids, Michigan police department apparently believed it wasn’t a violation of rights.

Here are the origins of the case, as summarized by ABC affiliate WZZM. (WZZM apparently feels no one needs to read the actual opinion and did not include it, despite it being freely available at the Michigan Supreme Court’s website. This is bad journalism and is inexcusable.)

The incidents involved two Black teenagers in 2011 and 2012, though the American Civil Liberties Union said photos and fingerprints were taken from thousands of people in Grand Rapids.

Denishio Johnson was stopped after cutting through the parking lot of a fitness club where there had been vehicle thefts.

Keyon Harrison was stopped after handing a model train engine to someone. He said it was part of a school project. Johnson and Harrison were photographed and fingerprinted but not charged with crimes.

They subsequently sued Grand Rapids police.

Here’s the coda, which arrived before this decision but not before the above residents had their rights violated.

Grand Rapids has dropped the practice. 

And there’s this caveat, which shows the PD still believes it should be able to do this and is now being held back by The (Judicial) Man.

But it had defended fingerprinting as a way to determine someone’s identity when they had no identification.

Come on, man. The police have no right to identify everyone. They only need to identify certain people. And that need is subject to the Constitution, which means probable cause, which certainly was in short supply in these cases, not to mention the thousands of incidents where cops got away with it.

The decision [PDF] is fairly brief but does a thorough job discussing the relevant issues. The PD argued this was nothing more than a Terry stop — a brief investigative encounter backed by reasonable suspicion. The court says neither of these cases fit the description. They were prolonged and unnecessarily intrusive.

In these cases, defendants only argued that fingerprinting was appropriate under Terry v Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968), and that Harrison consented to fingerprinting. Under Terry, a brief, on-the-scene detention of an individual is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment as long as the officer can articulate a reasonable suspicion for the detention. In these cases, fingerprinting pursuant to the P&P policy exceeded the permissible scope of a Terry stop because it was not reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified either stop; fingerprinting is not related to an officer’s immediate safety, and Terry caselaw does not justify stops merely for the general purpose of crimesolving. The fingerprinting in these cases also exceeded the permissible duration of a Terry stop.

In Docket No. 160959, VanderKooi called an officer in for backup to execute the P&P policy, but Harrison had already answered questions regarding his identity; therefore, calling another officer for backup after having already determined that no criminal activity was taking place was beyond the permissible duration of the Terry stop.

Similarly, in Docket No. 160958, as soon as the officers concluded that no crime had taken place in the parking lot where Johnson was detained, the reasons justifying the initial stop were dispelled, and execution of the P&P policy was an impermissible extension of the duration of the Terry stop. Because the P&P policy impermissibly exceeded both the scope and duration of a Terry stop, neither of the searches fell within the stop-and-frisk exception to the warrant requirement.

The cops also argued this was standard identification procedure, despite there being nothing standardized about it. The court shuts down this argument, too.

Defendants argue that fingerprinting nevertheless falls within the scope of a Terry stop because determining an individual’s identity is an important government interest.


The fingerprinting in these cases was not reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified either stop. Absent some sort of indication that the GRPD has access to a database that includes the fingerprints of all residents of and visitors to the City, fingerprinting individuals who fail to carry government-issued identification does not seem to be a useful or productive exercise in confirming any individual’s identity because there is no guarantee that a match exists that would provide more information. Instead, fingerprinting under the P&P policy appears to be aimed at solving past or future crimes. There is no indication in the record that the GRPD officers believed that fingerprinting would tie either plaintiff to the circumstances that justified each Terry stop.

The court sees this practice for what it is: an abuse of rights for the purpose of padding the PD’s fingerprint database and fishing for hits on past criminal activities.

To the extent that defendants argue that fingerprinting could help the officers determine whether either plaintiff could be linked to other crimes, such as the prior break-ins, those crimes were necessarily unconnected to the reasons justifying the actual stops. It goes unsaid that Terry caselaw does not justify stops merely for the general purpose of crime-solving, especially for those crimes that have yet to occur.

This is exactly why the Constitution exists: to prevent, deter, or provide redress for indiscriminate use of government power. That this deterrence arrived after the fact does not reflect badly on the Constitution. Instead, it exposes the self-serving actions of the Grand Rapids PD, which unilaterally decided its own interests (efficiency, crime solving) were more important than the public’s rights to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures.

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Michigan Supreme Court Says Photographing, Fingerprinting People Without Probable Cause Is Unconstitutional”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

The Grand Rapids Police have always been among the worst in the state of Michigan. I had a friend in high school that was a really good guy back then, but at one point later in life he briefly worked for the Grand Rapids PD and that turned him into a racist asshole. His wife hated the change in him so much that she threatened to divorce him (and later did), and his kids pretty much wanted nothing to do with him after they got old enough to have a say in the matter. Even today he is the kind of person you really don’t want to spend much time with. And I’m not sure how it will end for him but I do know that he went from being a really nice guy to a total jerk during his time employed by the Grand Rapids PD. And at that time he told me flat out that those guys were the biggest racists he’d ever met, but I don’t think he realized that he was becoming just like them (or maybe he knew but didn’t care)!

bhull242 (profile) says:

A correction. According to the opinion, the Court did not reach whether or not taking photographs would constitute a search at all as the plaintiffs had effectively dropped that argument in their appeals. Only the fingerprinting was found to be a search (and an unreasonable one at that), not the photographs. Whether or not taking photos would be considered a search is currently unknown, at least under this case.

It’s also worth noting that, while the defendants seem to have only argued that the fingerprinting was justified because of Terry and, in one case, that the plaintiff in that particular case had consented, the Court of Appeals had actually ruled that the fingerprinting did not constitute a search at all, which is just ridiculous.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »