A south shore driver who was pulled over because a constable thought his last name didn't match his skin colour has had his charge thrown out, in a case that highlights ongoing racial profiling by police.
Joël Debellefeuille was out for the day with his wife and stepdaughter when two Longueuil police officers pulled over his BMW sport-utility vehicle.
Debellefeuille, who is black, says it was his fourth time getting pulled over in a short time, and he became frustrated.
"I'd been pulled over three times prior to that in about a span of 10 days, so I was a little upset. I jumped out of the car and basically asked them why they were pulling me over."
When the officers asked to see his ID, a peeved Debellefeuille refused. He ended up getting two tickets: one for failing to show identification, and another for having expired car insurance.
He paid the insurance ticket but decided there was too strong a principle at stake not to contest the other one.
Police story 'nebulous'
The case has bounced around a couple courtrooms over the last two years, but last week a Longueuil municipal judge made a decisive, and condemnatory, ruling.
The two police constables' testimony was contradictory, Judge Pierre Armand Tremblay found. Their explanations for why they pulled Debellefeuille over were "nebulous" and "hesitant." The officer who made the call changed his tune, at first saying the vehicle stop was because he saw someone in the BMW wave suspiciously to the driver of another car, then asserting it was because he saw someone throwing a cigarette butt out the window of the SUV.
Ultimately, the constable said, he decided to pull over Debellefeuille because they ran his plates, saw the vehicle owner's name on file, and concluded that "could not be the driver" because " 'Debellefeuille,' to us, that sounded like a Quebecois family name and not something of another origin.
"If I run the plate and it comes back 'Mr. Jack' and it's a woman driving, you know for sure she's not the owner. That means I'll stop her…. If I have an 'Ebrahim' and it's a white man, a Quebecer who's driving, yes. Or if it's an Arab who's driving and it comes back 'Dubuc,' ya I'm going to stop him and check."
Judge Tremblay blasted the officer for racially profiling Debellefeuille.
"The fact of falsely or ignorantly believing that the family name 'Debellefeuille' can't be the surname of someone with black skin can only show a flagrant lack of knowledge about Quebec society," he wrote in his decision.
"Racially profiling someone is a grave breach of their rights under the Charter" of Rights and Freedoms, he continued.
Tremblay threw out all the evidence against Debellefeuille and acquitted him on the remaining charge of failing to identify himself.
Police face disciplinary hearing
Debellefeuille said he hopes the case motivates others who have been racially profiled to stand up for what's right.
"For people that are discriminated against and are too shy or too scared to do anything about that, hopefully my case will be a stepping stone for people to stand up for themselves."
Fo Niemi of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations said he's never seen a lower-court judge make such a comprehensive, and unequivocal, ruling.
"We've never seen a municipal court judge going this far in reviewing the state of Canadian jurisprudence and Canadian case law on racial discrimination, racial profiling," he said.
Both police officers involved in the incident are being hauled in front of a discplinary hearing next month.