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High Court: Police can only demand ID cards if ‘reasonable suspicion’

Court orders law enforcement to submit new regulations specifying when officers can ask for IDs, after petition charging discrimination against people of Ethiopian origin, Arabs

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Police detain protesters at a rally against police violence following the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2019. (Neuberg/Flash90)
Police detain protesters at a rally against police violence following the death of 19-year-old Solomon Tekah in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2019. (Neuberg/Flash90)

Police officers cannot demand that citizens present identity documents unless there are reasonable grounds for suspicion against them, the High Court ruled Monday, in a major victory for minority groups and rights organizations.

The court ordered the police to come up with new regulations within 90 days which will clearly define the circumstances in which an ID card can be requested.

While current police regulations emphasize that there should be no discrimination on grounds of religion, race, ethnic origin, nationality, sex or sexual orientation in contacts with the public, the rules, dating to 2019, permit officers to demand ID cards in situations where there is “unusual or suspicious behavior, or for the purpose of checking licenses, controlling checkpoints, the existence of a criminal incident nearby or in any other case for the purpose of fulfilling [the officer’s] role, and at his discretion.”

The Association of Ethiopian Jews, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel jointly petitioned the court to stop what they charged was a police practice governed by “vague and unsatisfactory” criteria, that was disproportionately and racially directed against certain minority groups, such as people of Ethiopian origin and Arabs, in a fashion that harms the rights to dignity, privacy, freedom of movement and equality.

Ethiopian Israelis protest in Tel Aviv on January 30, 2019 against police violence, after the killing of teenager Solomon Tekah. Using the community’s name, the Beta Israel, the posters say ‘Police Murder the Beta Israel.’ (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“In my view, the requirement that a person identifies himself to a police officer through an identity card may lead to a real violation of a person’s right to dignity,” High Court President Esther Hayut wrote in the court’s ruling.

To avoid “labeling people as suspects for no reason,” the police’s authority to demand a person’s ID should only be used in cases where there is “a specific need” to check whether the person possesses an ID card or where information that is needed about the holder is on that card, she added.

Hayut, who sat with Justices Hanan Melcer and Alex Stein, ordered the defendants, the Israel Police and the State Prosecution, to pay NIS 15,000 (just under $4,600) to the plaintiffs.

Leaders of the Arab and Ethiopian-Israeli communities have long charged that police behavior towards their communities is colored by racism, despite repeated promises from the force to root out the problem.

Israelis of Ethiopian descent came out in huge numbers in 2015 to protest what they called police brutality and racism, after the beating of soldier Damas Pakada by police, which was caught on video.

In 2016,  a commission on ways to combat racism against Israelis of Ethiopian heritage, headed by former Justice Minister Director-General Emi Palmor, issued a report with 53 detailed recommendations for tackling racism throughout Israeli society, mainly through the education system.

Ethiopian-Israelis and supporters demonstrate in Jerusalem on July 15, 2019, against police violence and discrimination following the death of 19-year-old Ethiopian, Solomon Tekah who was shot and killed in Kiryat Haim by an off-duty police officer. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But continuing friction between the police and the community climaxed again, following the killing in June 2019 of teenager Solomon Tekah at the hands of an off-duty police officer. Last year, the officer was charged with negligent homicide in the Haifa District Court — an offense that carries a maximum prison sentence of three years.

Tekah’s death came six months after Yehuda Biadga, 24, a mentally ill Ethiopian Israeli, was shot and killed by police who claimed he charged an officer while brandishing a knife.

Just before the Tekah shooting, the Justice Ministry’s Public Defenders’ Office issued a report censuring authorities’ poor record of investigating allegations of violence committed by the police.

In February last year, police launched a probe and removed several officers from their posts in Kiryat Malachi, in southern Israel, a day after Kan news reported that officers there mocked and disparaged people of Ethiopian origin in a WhatsApp group.

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