The police cannot demand that Ethiopian-Israelis produce identification cards without a reasonable suspicion, the High Court of Justice ruled Monday night. The decision essentially proscribes a key part of law-enforcement policy.
All three justices, High Court President Esther Hayut, Vice President Neal Hendel and Alex Stein, disapproved of the existing police policy of aggressively demanding identification from Ethiopians, even when there is no concrete criminal suspicion.
Stein went even further than Hayut and Hendel and said the entire rule relating to compelling citizens to produce their identification card was unconstitutional unless a different law relating to criminal suspicions came into play.
“There is a suspicion that the authority will be used in an arbitrary way and will lead to the violation of human rights,” the court wrote.
The ruling did not limit itself to Ethiopians and apparently could be used for any citizens.
The rule was developed in March 2019 to give police some cover for seeking identification from Ethiopians without appearing to be racist and while improving on previous policies, which Ethiopians found even more oppressive.
Basically, the High Court’s message in this ruling was that the March 2019 attempt to make police policies less aggressive to Ethiopians was still inadequate.
The majority opinion said police could only demand identification if there were a specific situation and a logical concrete need, but not simply to approach a random Ethiopian on the street about who there was no criminal suspicion.
Moreover, the police had argued that the rule allowing police to ask for identification also empowered them to ask certain questions about a person’s identity, telephone number and to perform certain reviews related to the extent of their record.
The High Court rejected these extensions and said even where police officers could ask for an identification card based on a specific and concrete need, they could not ask further questions or perform any reviews without an equally concrete additional criminal suspicion.
The attempted reform came during a period in which the Emi Palmor Committee (Palmor was then director-general of the Justice Ministry) was exploring a wide variety of ways to improve treatment of Ethiopians, including in law enforcement.
The justices gave the police 90 days to propose a new and reformed policy on the issue.
They said the Palmor Committee took the position that any special law-enforcement measures by police should have clear, neutral and mandatory criteria that would avoid abuse.
The Palmor Committee emerged out of a number of incidents of mistreatment by Ethiopians and a general criticism from the Ethiopian sector that the government was ignoring their needs. Too much discretion was left to police in the field, which made abuse more likely, it said.
If the police have not changed the policy within 90 days, the rule will be completely annulled.
The petition was filed by Tebeka, a legal aid organization for Ethiopians, as well as other human-rights groups, which were granted NIS 15,000 for legal fees relating to the case.
In response to the ruling, Tebeka CEO Tomer Marsha said: “We are very pleased that the High Court accepted our view on the identification issue. This sends an important message to the police to change their harmful rules.”
“We were the first who noticed the harm when the police introduced the rule as if it was consistent with the Palmor Committee,” he said. “We filed the petition because of the violation of human rights.”
The High Court ruling would help protect both Ethiopians’ rights and other sectors’ rights, Marsha said.