When the police arrived at a Phoenix apartment complex back in 2012, they were looking for an individual who had an outstanding federal warrant, and who, they heard, was seen selling drugs in the area. At the complex, the police didn’t find the person they were searching for. Rather, they came across four black men, none of whom fit the description of the suspect. One of the men, Anthony Primous, was sitting with his one-year old child in his lap. The officers conducted a pat-down search of Primous, and discovered a baggie containing a couple of ounces of marijuana. Primous was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

In the trial court, Primous’ lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence – in this case the marijuana – because the police did not have reasonable suspicion to justify the search. The trial judge denied the motion. In doing so, she cited the “dangerousness of the area” as a justification for the search. The decision was affirmed by the court of appeals. The Arizona Supreme Court reversed, and threw out Primous’ conviction.

What is “neighborhood profiling”?

The police in the case didn’t argue that they had the right to search Primous because he was black. What they said was that the neighborhood they were in was known as a high-crime area. The Supreme Court rejected this as a justification for the search, stating that the cops did not have individualized reasonable suspicion to justify the pat-down. What they meant is that while crime may be rampant in the neighborhood, the police need more before conducting a warrantless search – they need reasonable suspicion that the individual being search committed (or was about to commit) a crime.

While the case, from the prosecution’s point of view, revolved around safety for law enforcement personnel (a pat-down for weapons), there’s more involved here. And the problem is that “high-crime neighborhood” is often a term laced with a lot more than statistical crime information. What it often means is that this is an area where there aren’t many white folks, but plenty of people of color. If the prosecution’s position in the case prevailed, it would mean, effectively, that your Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures will vary depending upon the color of your skin.

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