PARIS — A French appeals court ruled Wednesday that police carried out unjustified identity checks on five minority men, ordering the government to pay them damages in an unprecedented ruling that activists hope will help reduce widespread discrimination.
The collective case was the first of its kind in France, where anti-racism groups say non-whites are unfairly targeted by police. Gratuitous ID checks have long been cited as a prime reason for troubled relations between police and residents of poor suburbs.
Thirteen men, all of black or Arab origin, originally filed suit in the case. None of the 13 men has a police record, but each said he was victim of multiple, humiliating ID checks, widely known as "stop and frisk" and considered by police as an important crime-fighting tactic.
A lower court ruled in 2013 that police didn't overstep legal boundaries with the ID checks. The Paris appeals court overturned part of that ruling, saying Wednesday that the checks against five men were illegal, and ordered the state to pay 1,500 euros ($1,680) euros to each man.
Lawyers say they haven't yet decided whether to appeal the other eight cases.
While the sum of damages is small, the significance of the ruling could be broad.
Lawyer Slim Ben Achour said that with this precedent they now plan to multiply such suits around France.
"I have 30 lawyers ready," he said.
Niane Bocar, 36, was among the eight whose suits were rejected, but he said he was happy because "we've already advanced the debate. ...Five out of 13 isn't nothing."
While police reform has become a buzzword in the U.S. after cases of police abuse in a string of states, it has little resonance in France. The lower court initially ruled that police action does not fall within the boundaries of an anti-discrimination law considered applicable only between employers and employees.
Those subjected to constant identity checks maintain that the most insidious element may be the invisibility of the controls because there is no official trace they have taken place — making them nearly impossible to prove in a formal complaint. Those who brought the case want that changed.
The French legal action is backed by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Union of French Lawyers and the Stop Racial Profiling group, who say the case was unprecedented.