Israel’s Supreme Court Limits Racial Profiling, but Loopholes Remain
In landmark case, police must now have cause to ask for ID
In a landmark decision, Israel’s Supreme Court has unanimously held that there are limits to the police’s power to stop people and ask for identification.
The decision announced on January 26 was hailed by the Ethiopian community in Israel as well as by rights activists and organizations, who say the police disproportionally stop minorities such as Ethiopian Israelis and Arab Israelis. Their elation over the decision, however, is tempered by loopholes in the law and other police policies that will allow the practice of racial profiling to continue.
The court’s decision was based on a merger of two similar cases, one brought by The Association of Ethiopian Jews (AEJ), along with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, and the other by Tebeka, a group that provides legal assistance for Ethiopian Israelis. The cases argued that the police policy of stopping anyone for any reason and asking for their government-issued identity card is against the law and that the current law enforcement practice is being applied in a discriminatory matter.
The Court held that, under Section 2 of the “ID Possession and Presentation Act,” authorities can only ask for ID if there is objective reason to do so, and prohibits the police from using the occasion to look further into the stopped person’s police records.
“This decision completely changes the way the police are supposed to act toward people who are not suspected of anything,” Anne Suciu, the ACRI attorney who wrote the Supreme Court petition, told The Media Line. “Until now, the police used to ask people to show their ID without any suspicion in any circumstance without any limitation.” Now, she said, the court has decided that police are allowed to ask to see an identity card, “but only in limited circumstances.”
“The police are no longer allowed to stop people based on a hunch that a person is doing something wrong, which usually only happens to minorities in Israel, and now they have to have objective ground,” she said.
Police are only allowed to ask for ID to determine that the stopped person actually possesses an identity card, for example, where they suspect that a person is not in the country legally, Suciu said.
Police also are allowed to ask for ID if they need to obtain information that is contained on the card.
“If they see someone drinking alcohol, they’re allowed to ask for an ID to see the person is over 18 or, for example, during corona to see where the person lives and check if they’re violating lockdown,” she said.
The police are no longer allowed to stop people based on a hunch that a person is doing something wrong, which usually only happens to minorities in Israel, and now they have to have objective ground
Now when a person is stopped, Suciu says there are limits to what the police can probe. The practice of stopping someone for ID will be considered a detention.
“You are not allowed anymore to ask for an identity card and check the criminal background of the person in the police files, which is the practice that was used until now,” she said.
“The police claimed that the power to ask someone to show an identity card is not detention; the court decided it is a detention and the law that is relevant to detention is supposed to be adapted in cases like that, which means that the police cannot ask someone to show an identity card without explaining why and without first saying their name,” Suciu said.
This classification is important because the police have not kept track of the numbers of people stopped for ID because it was not considered a detention.
The Israel Police spokesperson’s department told The Media Line in response to the ruling: “This is a legal proceeding and we will continue to conduct it in court and not in the media. It should be noted that with regard to this issue and any other issue, the Israel Police acts in accordance with the provisions of the law and police procedures.”
The police now have 90 days to write new regulations to implement the ruling and detail the protocol involved in stopping people.
The Supreme Court’s decision has been welcomed by the Ethiopian community in Israel.
Shlomit Bukaya, executive director at AEJ, applauded the high court’s decision.
“For me, it’s a new beginning for all the Ethiopian teenagers … I know from my experience with teenagers, even my brothers, that’s it a new day for them,” she told The Media Line. “They can now say to those policemen who stop them and ask for ID: ‘I know there is a new decision from the Supreme Court that you cannot ask me for ID whenever you want. You need to explain why you are stopping me.’”
Bukaya says that the Court’s decision empowers the community.
“They now have tools to deal with the police. Now they can go wherever they want without being as afraid when they see a policeman,” she said.
I was in the army and I’m a good guy. I have a good job, but I’m a Black man and that is the reason why they stop me
Shahar Mola, a 45-year-old Ethiopian Israeli activist from Kfar Saba, knows that experience all too well.
He has been stopped for an ID at least six times, and described one encounter near his home.
“When I was running one day like everyone else, they stopped me.” he told The Media Line. “While it is not pleasant to think about, if you are a Black man in this country and the police see you in … a wealthier area, they’re likely to stop you. Maybe you live there, but the police assume you don’t.”
“I was in the army and I’m a good guy. I have a good job, but I’m a Black man and that is the reason why they stop me,” he said. “I know not everyone is like that but a lot of police officials are not open-minded to understand why Black men are in good neighborhoods” for reasons that are not nefarious, he said.
Mola says that his relatives experience this frequently.
“My brother lives in a good a neighborhood with his children, and they get stopped all the time. Even the nine-year-old gets stopped,” he said.
Mola is happy about the Supreme Court decision, because he does not want anyone else to go through what he has experienced.
“When it first happens, you get angry. This is my country and I give everything for my country. I would die for Israel, but it makes you feel bad when someone stops because of your color,” he said. “It’s the worst feeling.”
The Supreme Court ruling “is not just only for me, but for my children and my brother’s children. I hope [this treatment] won’t happen again,” he added.
However, Mola’s wish is unlikely to be realized.
ACRI’s Suciu points out that while the Supreme Court’s decision limits the ability of authorities to racially profile, it does not entirely abolish the practice.
People who are likely to be suspected of not being in the country legally are usually going to be minorities, and they are still going to be stopped.
“The danger of profiling is not completely eliminated,” she said.
Bukaya agrees that there will be still be apprehension in the Ethiopian community over interaction with the police and that work still needs to be done by the police to combat racial bias.
“We are half-way there” to equal treatment by the authorities, she said. “There is still a disproportionate amount of arrests and criminal profiles among Ethiopian Israelis, and police violence needs to completely stop.”
Bukaya contends that one way the police can do this is through relieving of duty officers who disproportionately arrest minority groups.