Months after a lawsuit was filed in federal court alleging the Jackson Police Department’s roadblock program violates drivers’ constitutional rights and disproportionately affects people from Black and low-income neighborhoods, attorneys from the Mississippi Center for Justice and the City of Jackson are working toward a resolution.
Settlement negotiations have been active since early March, shortly after the center filed the class action lawsuit, said Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Paloma Wu, who is also deputy director of the George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative.
The suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi against the City of Jackson and Police Chief James Davis, has not gone before a judge yet.
The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Black, white and mixed race. Although they are not in the room during the discussions, they are offering potential ways to mitigate harm from the checkpoints, Wu said.
Jackson police calls the roadblock program “Ticket Arrest Tow.” Since the beginning of the year, they have been used around the city to check if drivers have valid licenses, insurance and registration.
Police officials have said the roadblocks also allow officers to see if a driver has an active warrant.
“Our intent is to get wanted individuals off the streets,” court records document Davis saying to reporters on Feb. 18. “We are doing everything we can to keep Jackson safe. We’ve got individuals with outstanding warrants that is wanted (sic) and we’re looking to bring them to justice.”
Plaintiffs say the checkpoints disproportionately harm people who can’t afford or are unable to stay on top of keeping driver’s licenses, registration and car insurance updated.
Members from the Mississippi Alliance for Public Safety reached out to MCJ about peoples’ experiences with the roadblocks and how members wanted to organize around the issue.
Wu said the center began looking into the roadblocks and moved quickly to file a lawsuit because harm was building.
“Every time the roadblocks went up, it was like a casualty zone,” she said.
Between Jan. 4 to March 18, Jackson police officers made a total of 208 arrests – 10 for felonies, 198 for misdemeanors – from its roadblocks, according to information from the department obtained through a public records request shared with the Mississippi Center for Justice.
During that period, Jackson police officers also issued 1,149 citations and towed 186 vehicles.
Members of the alliance spoke with over 80 people in South and West Jackson, where they said they’d heard most of the roadblocks were occurring, and found many had negative experiences.
People said they felt inconvenienced and unable to move in and out of their communities. Alliance members heard a story about a mother who walked home with her children in the rain because her car was towed after going through a checkpoint.
Archie Skiffer Jr., 43, is a member of the Mississippi Alliance for Public Safety and has been a community organizer for over 20 years. He is also one of the four plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
He commutes from Simpson County to work in Jackson, and at night delivers food for DoorDash in the city. Skiffer uses driving apps to find alternate routes to avoid the roadblocks and get food orders to customers in a timely manner.
The money Skiffer earns from his two jobs help him afford his home and other living expenses.
“It would be devastating,” he said about potential loss of food delivery income or employment if he were to lose his car.
While delivering food, Skiffer said he has met Jackson residents who rely on food delivery because they do not have the credentials to drive to get food themselves. He said they fear getting caught up in a roadblock and potentially cited or arrested.
Like Skiffer and other alliance members, the Poor People’s Campaign also believes Jackson police’s roadblocks criminalize poor people.
The Poor People’s Campaign is working with the city and has set up tents near the checkpoints to provide information to people who may not have a license or other documentation, Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said during a March 21 press conference.
The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. A traffic stop by police would need to be supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause, Wu said.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2000 roadblocks can’t be used for general crime control, but law enforcement can use them to check for licenses, car insurance and registration, she said.
General roadblocks treat people like they are guilty when that isn’t always the case, Wu said.
In a July 1 court filing, the city denied most of the allegations in the complaint, including that the roadblocks are unconstitutional, they target majority Black and low-income neighborhoods and people are treated as suspects as they drive through them.
“Any injury, damage or deprivation alleged or suffered by the plaintiff was the result of the plaintiff’s failure to act reasonably or avoid or mitigate such injury, damage or deprivation,” the city said in its response.
In addition, the city says it is immune from the lawsuit under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act and through qualified immunity, which states a government employee can’t be sued if they were acting within the bounds of their job, according to the court documents.
City Attorney Catoria Martin, whose office is involved in settlement negotiations with the Mississippi Center for Justice, said in an email the city does not comment on pending litigation. Jackson Police Department Public Information Officer Sam Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
Looking ahead, Skiffer and members of the Mississippi Alliance for Public Safety would like to see the roadblocks used in a more equitable way. That could mean where they are placed rotates among precincts over a certain period of time, and the roadblocks could also be placed in predominantly white neighborhoods such as Belhaven or Eastover, he said.
Skiffer said Jackson police could share information and resources with people who need to renew a driver’s license or let people contact a family member to give their vehicle to instead of having it towed.
Police can also use discretion not to cite or arrest someone, he said, adding that a warning could work in some situations.
“Have compassion,” Skiffer said.
Editor’s note: The Mississippi Center For Justice President and CEO Vangela M. Wade serves on Mississippi Today’s board of trustees.