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NYC Stores Facing 'Shop and Frisk' Lawsuits

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on October 31, 2013 2:09 PM

Macy's and Barneys stores in New York City are facing so-called "shop and frisk" lawsuits by customers who believe they were victims of racial profiling.

In the past week, a firestorm of discrimination allegations against the stores have been splashed across headlines, sparking public outrage, a string of lawsuits, and even an investigation by New York's Attorney General.

What will the shoppers need to prove in order to prevail in their lawsuits?

Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations

Federal and state laws prohibit discrimination against certain protected groups, including racial minorities, in businesses and places that are considered "public accommodations" -- typically, businesses or buildings that are open to the general public.

A store may reserve the right to inspect your bags, check your bags at the door, or closely observe your conduct in the store in an effort to prevent shoplifting. However, such actions may not be based on a protected class -- i.e., race, according to the NYC Commission on Human Rights.

In order to prove their cases, the plaintiffs will need to demonstrate that the security measures were taken against them based on their race. If so, they can claim they were victims of unreasonable searches and seizures and were falsely imprisoned.

A staggering number of minority customers at Barneys and Macy's -- including "Finding Forrester" actor Rob Brown, who was cuffed and detained at Macy's -- claim they were wrongfully searched, detained, or arrested on suspicion of credit card fraud, Forbes reports.

Macy's is also being accused of using a security quota system of five "arrests" per week and allegedly identifying nonwhite shoppers through an internal "race code system" -- for example, African American men are "10-90s" and African American women are "10-91s," one lawsuit claims.

Macy's alleged code system works to "facilitate its targeting of Middle Eastern, African-American and other nonwhite shoppers," according to the lawsuit, as reported by the New York Daily News.

N.Y. Attorney General Steps In

Apart from civil action, such discrimination also warrants government action. Following the rash of allegations, Attorney Gen. Eric Schneiderman opened an investigation into Barneys and Macy's and has given them until Friday to hand over their policies on stopping, detaining, and questioning customers, reports CBS News.

"Apparently there was some sort of policy in the stores and in some part of the NYPD to profile certain types of customers" Schneiderman told The Washington Post.

Law enforcement, advocacy groups, and even Jay-Z -- who is currently getting a lot of flak for his partnership with Barneys -- will certainly be following the developments closely.

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