Michigan Supreme Court rules taking fingerprints without a warrant is unconstitutional

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

The Michigan Supreme Court has ruled that taking a person's fingerprints without a warrant is unconstitutional, rejecting a so-called "photograph and print" policy previously used by the Grand Rapids Police Department.

In a unanimous decision issued on Friday, the state's highest court concluded that fingerprinting someone who has not been charged with a crime qualifies as an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Through the "photograph and print" procedure, Grand Rapids police officers were given cameras and fingerprinting kits as part of their standard equipment, allowing them to photograph and fingerprint someone at any time and at their own discretion. The department changed the policy in 2015, but according to the court ruling the practice was used routinely by Grand Rapids police officers during stops as a way to gather identifying information. 

"The [photograph and print] policy was facially unconstitutional because it authorized the [Grand Rapids Police Department] to engage in unreasonable searches contrary to the Fourth Amendment," Justice Richard Bernstein wrote in the court's unanimous opinion. "... Fingerprinting an individual without probable cause, a warrant, or an applicable warrant exception violates an individual's Fourth Amendment Right."

The state court ruling stems from a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on behalf of two Black teenagers who were subjected to the policy in two separate instances in 2011 and 2012. 

In the 2011 incident, Denishio Johnson was stopped by police after being seen walking through a parking lot and looking into cars. The 15-year-old did not have any identification on him at the time, so the officer took his fingerprints in an effort to see if he was tied to any other crimes. The teen was eventually identified by his mother and released without charges.

The following year, an officer stopped Keyon Harrison after observing the child hand a model train engine to another boy, something the officer found "suspicious." Harrison was let go without any charges, but was photographed and fingerprinted before he was released.

A trial court and the Michigan Court of Appeals had previously sided with the city of Grand Rapids, ruling against Johnson and Harrison. Friday's Supreme Court decision reverses that decision. 

“Today’s unanimous ruling confirms that the Grand Rapids Police Department’s photograph and print policy is dangerous and unconstitutional," said Dan Korobkin, a legal director with the ACLU of Michigan, in a statement following the ruling.

Korobkin said the policy had enabled "decades of racial profiling, police overreach, and threats to personal privacy."

According to records reviewed by the legal advocacy organization, three-quarters of the people who were stopped and printed by Grand Rapids police were Black, despite African Americans making up just 21% of the city's population.

The ruling against the Grand Rapids Police Department comes as the law enforcement agency remains under scrutiny over the death of Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by Grand Rapids police officer Christopher Schurr during a morning traffic stop on April 4. Schurr has been charged with second-degree murder and fired from the police department.

KRuble@detroitnews.com