According to an article the Southern Voice newspaper on October 30, 2009: “The police have denied any wrongdoing in the raid and have said that they had the right to search everyone in the bar that night because there was suspected illegal activity taking place inside the venue.”
The Police are simply wrong.
The United States Supreme Court and other Federal courts have made it clear that police do not have the right to detain or search individuals simply because they are present in a public place where illegal activity may be occurring. For example, in a 1979 case involving the search of a bar, the Supreme Court specifically ruled that it was illegal for police to search all the patrons simply because they were present in the bar. The Court ruled that “a person’s mere propinquity [closeness] to others independently suspected of criminal activity does not, without more, give rise to probable cause to search that person.” The Supreme Court explained that “a search or seizure of a person must be supported by probable cause particularized with respect to that person.” Ybarra v. Illinois, United States Supreme Court, 1979 (emphasis added).
In another case involving the search of every patron at a bar, the United States Court of Appeals explained that it is illegal for police to frisk “a person in a public place where the officers have no specific … facts on which to base a suspicion of that person in particular.” As the court said: “the sole fact that an individual … happens to be in a public place” where someone else might be committing a crime “does not provide a basis for a … search.” U.S. v. Jaramillo (1994).
The Federal court explained that “it is not reasonable to assume that all of the persons at a public bar have … a connection.”
When the Atlanta Police entered the Eagle, they encountered dozens of patrons who were fully dressed and who could not possibly have been suspected of dancing in underwear without a permit, lewd acts, indecent exposure, or any other crime, and yet they threw these individuals to the ground, searched them, forced them to lay face-down on the floor for more than 30 minutes (and in some cases much longer), and entered all their names into a police computer.
As the Supreme Court explained in in U.S. v. Cortez (1981), a police officer may stop someone only if the officer has a reasonable suspicion “that the particular individual being stopped is engaged in wrongdoing.” Police officers simply do not have the right to search or detain individuals who are not personally suspected of doing anything illegal, simply because they are in a particular public place.
The Atlanta police claim they have the right to search everyone in a public place if there is “suspected illegal activity taking place inside the venue.” Under that theory, the police could search everyone present in a department store if they observe someone shoplifting.
These issues are discussed in greater detail on the page about the Legal Issues in this case.