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GRPD's photograph and fingerprint policy under scrutiny by Supreme Court

The Michigan State Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday afternoon regarding the Grand Rapids Police Department's practice of photographing and fingerprinting individuals who aren't carrying ID, without probable cause
MI State Supreme Court
Posted at 5:45 PM, Nov 09, 2021

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The State Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday afternoon regarding whether or not the practice of photographing and fingerprinting an individual during contact with the police when they are not carrying identification and no probable cause exists.

The session stems from two lawsuits filed against the Grand Rapids Police Department and several of their officers.

In August 2011, a GRPD officer stopped a 15-year-old African American boy named Denishio Johnson. The officer claimed Johnson was looking into vehicles at an athletic club on the city's southeast side.

Then, in May of 2012, Cpt. Curt VanderKooi stopped a 16-year-old African American boy, Jeyon Harrison, who he says had passed off a toy train engine to another boy. Capt VanderKooi later wrote that the exchange seemed suspicious, and that is why he made contact with Harrison.

In both incidents, the boys were photographed and fingerprinted because they were not carrying identification.

GRPD's policies and procedures allow officers to do so, even when there is no probable cause to suspect the individual has recently been involved in criminal activity, when they are not carrying state-issued ID.

Families of both boys ended up filing lawsuits against the police department, saying the interactions violated their rights.

“The 4th Amendment protects all of us from unreasonable searches and seizures, and most people are familiar with that, in the context of their homes,” explained Kirsten Holz, an attorney with Levine & Levine.

"A lot of people don't realize that the 4th Amendment also protects us with regard to the technology we use, and with regard to our bodies.”

A lower court previously heard the lawsuits and ruled in favor of the police department, but they were appealed, sent to Michigan's Court of Appeals, and are now in front of Michigan's State Supreme Court.

“The police were going around, taking people's fingerprints right on the side of the road, from people who weren't charged with any wrongdoing, and that's where we wanted to draw the line and say that is a violation of your right to privacy, and it's unconstitutional," Dan Korobkin, legal director for ACLU Michigan, told FOX 17 late Wednesday afternoon.

No final decisions were made by the Supreme Court, but when they do issue an opinion on this in the coming months, legal experts say the implications could be far reaching.

“Hopefully, it will... send a warning to law enforcement throughout the state, and to some extent throughout the country, that... personal biometric information, such as fingerprints, is private,” Korobkin said.

"I think it has much bigger implications than just how we interact with police officers," Holz said.

"The entire government — state government, county government, local governments, the federal government — all of those would be impacted, are impacted by cases like this."

If the court finds that GRPD's policy of photographing and fingerprinting individuals without an ID goes against the 4th Amendment, they would theoretically not be able to collect evidence in that manner going forward.

Holz added Wednesday, "Many people think that these type of issues only apply to criminals, or people that are arrested, or people that get in trouble, and the reality is, it applies to every single one of us.”

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