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Lawsuit: Cops targeted black barbershops

April 8, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
A lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges Riverside County law enforcement officers conducted racially motivated, warrantless raids on black-operated barber shops in Moreno Valley under the guise of looking for health code violations. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, along with Los Angeles-based law firm Seyfarth Shaw, filed the 11-page complaint in U.S. District Court in Riverside, alleging the city of Moreno Valley, its police department and the California Board of Barbering & Cosmetology violated the civil rights of three Moreno Valley barbers and their customers.

"The Moreno Valley police unmistakably targeted these businesses because their owners and clientele are African-American," said ACLU attorney Peter Bibring.

"There was no evidence of criminal activity at these locations, and no reason that these once-thriving businesses were singled out other than racial profiling," he said. "These raids were ... reminiscent of a dark era in our own shameful past that should never be repeated again."

Moreno Valley City Attorney Bob Herrick declined comment, saying he had not seen a copy of the lawsuit. He referred further inquiries to Riverside County Counsel Pamela Walls, who was not immediately available to respond.

The city of Moreno Valley contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department for law enforcement services.

Kim Brown, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, of which the state Board of Barbering & Cosmetology is a component, said the department had no plans to issue a public statement on the lawsuit.

According to the ACLU filing, Moreno Valley police officers and state inspectors, without showing any legal justification, raided the Hair Shack, 24594 Sunnymead Blvd., and Fades Unlimited, 24150 Alessandro Blvd., on April 2, 2008.

Both shops are staffed by African-American barbers, and the clientele is almost exclusively black, according to the lawsuit.

"At all relevant times, the Hair Shack and Fades Unlimited have served as community and social centers for African-American residents of Moreno Valley," the lawsuit states. "The atmosphere in each place was friendly."

Moreno Valley police officers and county Code Enforcement officers accompanied state inspectors inside the barber shops and blocked the front and back entrances, preventing anyone from leaving, according to the ACLU.

The stated reason for the visit was to check for health code violations, according to the plaintiffs.

At the Hair Shack, police officers looked into drawers and cabinets and questioned customers, according to the lawsuit.

"The officers never claimed that they had a warrant to conduct a search and never produced a warrant," the suit says.

At Fades Unlimited, "officers questioned employees and customers, collected drivers' licenses from them and ran warrant checks on them," according to the complaint.

"When one barber expressed his objections to the search, an officer handcuffed him, took him to a police car in the parking lot, placed him handcuffed in the back of the car, and told him they had found an outstanding warrant," the suit says. "After about 10 minutes, officers released the barber and allowed him back inside the shop."

Hair Shack owner Kevon Gordon, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he and his customers were "treated like criminals simply because of the color of our skin."

"It was sickening," he said. "I have lost good customers and had my reputation called into question in a community where I've been working for 20 years. I wouldn't wish this on anyone."

Similar inspections had taken place at Fades Unlimited and three other black-owned barber shops on previous occasions, according to the ACLU.

The lawsuit lists three plaintiffs by name -- Gordon, Ron Jones, a Hair Shack employee, and Raymond Barnes, a Fades Unlimited barber. Another 20 plaintiffs are listed as John Does.

The suit alleges violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as violations of the California Constitution. The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified compensatory damages and injunctions against the state and sheriff's department.

The plaintiffs want the court to order the state to limit law enforcement's participation in inspections and institute clearly defined policies on how and what businesses are selected for inspection.

They also want Riverside County Sheriff Stan Sniff and Moreno Valley Police Chief Rick Hall to implement policies against racial profiling, and have standards to prohibit administrative searches on the scale described in the lawsuit.


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