THE DEBELLEFEUILLE CASE: FROM RACIAL PROFILING TO PROSECUTORIAL DISCRIMINATION
Montreal, November 30, 2011
The decision by the City of Longueuil to prosecute Joel Debellefeuille, a Black business manager, in what is clearly a racial profiling incident, inevitably makes the compelling case for corrective legislative and judicial actions to address race-based prosecutorial discrimination and other forms of systemic racism in the Québec justice sytem.
In July 2009, Mr. Debellefeuille was intercepted by Longueuil police while driving in his black BMW with his family. When Mr. Debellefeuille got out of his car, he was asked by the officer: “Hey, guy, is this your car?” Considering the question to be unprofessional, Mr. Debellefeuille told the officer that his name was not “Guy”, that his wife and children were in the car, and that the officer could have checked for his name using the license plate. The situation degenerated and Mr. Debellefeuille eventually received two fines under the Highway Safety Code for refusing to provide documents to a peace officer when requested to do so and failing to have car insurance papers in order.
In June 2010, Mr Debellefeuille contested the fine for refusing to produce ID at Longueuil Municipal Court. This was the first occasion that he had seen the police report, presented in court, in which the intercepting officer's discriminatory motive was written in black and white: “The vehicle belongs to a certain Debellefeuille Joel, it was a Black man who did not correspond at first sight to the owner.
Debellefeuille sounds like a Québécois family name and not of another origin.” During the hearing, Mr. Debellefeuille repeatedly raised the issue that he was a victim of racial profiling. In addition, the intercepting officer stated that Mr. Debellefeuille's race was the “primary reason” for his interception and that he would intercept Asian persons with a Québécois family name.
A reasonable person would conclude that, in light of such glaring evidence of racial bias, the judge would have acquitted Mr. Debellefeuille, especially as he himself raised racial profiling during his court appearance. A person with common sense would also expect that the prosecution, facing such obvious evidence of racial bias in law enforcement, would have dropped the charge in the first place.
This, however, did not what happen. On September 29, 2010, Mr. Justice Marc Gravel of the Longueuil Municipal Court delivered his verdict. Ignoring Mr. Debellefeuille's racial profiling defense, including the violation of his constitutional right to equality, the judge found him guilty. Furthermore, Mr. Justice Gravel dismissed the racial profiling argument, on the grounds that the “Municipal Court cannot interfere in police ethics matters”. This situation arose because Mr. Debellefeuille had made his claim by citing the Quebec Code of Ethics for Police Officers, instead of the Canadian Charter or the Quebec Charter of rights and freedoms.
Out of principle, Mr. Debellefeuille decided to spend money to appeal the verdict to Superior Court, which, on November 17, 2011, quashed the lower court’s decision and ordered a new trial. Mr. Justice Zigman could have acquitted Mr. Debellefeuille on the grounds that the police decision to stop him was unequivocally influenced by racial bias, but he seemingly avoided issuing a ruling on racial profiling, perhaps to prevent an appeal by the City to the Court of Appeal.
However, Mr. Justice Zigman did set an important precedent on racial profiling in Québec by stating that the trial judge had erred by not addressing racial profiling and examining how it could have influenced the police interception. The effect of his decision is that all trial judges must now consider account racial profiling as a defense, no matter how it is raised by a defendant unfamiliar with the Charters.
This is, in itself, a major judicial step towards courts recognizing and confronting racial profiling, as many judges in both common-law and administrative tribunals are still struggling with the issue and avoiding it.
Instead of dropping the charge, the city has decided to prosecute Mr. Debellefeuille again. It has the legal right to do so. But, in re-prosecuting, the prosecution once again intentionally and consciously ignores blatant evidence of race-based police bias and subjects Mr. Debellefeuille to further inconvenience, stress and costs.
The new trial will provide a rare opportunity in Québec for a judicial confirmation of racial profiling, especially in the context of intercepting citizens on the highway. What few realize is that the case will also put the national and international spotlight on the Longueuil Police and its capacity to address racial profiling, as well as the city itself as a place where Black men are free to drive their cars without being subjected to bias-based policing. After all, this is a City with a significant racialized and anglophone population, just across the bridge from Montreal.
The question, therefore, is whether by proceeding, in light of evidence of racial bias in the traffic stop, the prosecution and the City intentionally discriminates against Mr. Bebellefeuille on the basis of his race, and if they should be held accountable under the Charters for violating his civil and constitutional right to equality before and under the law? The credibility of the administrative of justice in the eyes of racialized people depends on the eventual judicial answer to this question.
To quote the NAACP in its fight against prosecutorial bias and racial disparities in the criminal justice system: “It is difficult for [people] of color to have faith and confidence in the … judicial system when we know from experience that we are treated differently, and more often more severely, because of the color of our skin. This lack of confidence in turn, makes us not only distrustful of the system at every level, but also makes it much less likely that we can trust or are willing to cooperate with the very people and institutions who are charged with protecting our safety and ensuring that our Constitutional rights are upheld.”
And, to paraphrase the late gay African American writer James Baldwin, it a clear case of “the evidence of things not seen”.