Hijab removal for mugshot prompts federal lawsuit against Detroit jail, Michigan DOC

©The Detroit News

DETROIT — A 36-year-old woman is suing the city of Detroit and the Michigan Department of Corrections in federal court, alleging violations of her religious expression and freedom after being forced to remove her hijab while taking a booking photo last year at the Detroit Detention Center.

Zainab Chabban is represented in the lawsuit by the Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan Legal Fund.

The Detroit Detention Center is run by the Michigan Department of Corrections. The city of Detroit believes it should not have been named.

“Neither the city of Detroit nor the Detroit Police Department take photographs of people entering the Detroit Detention Center,” said Lawrence Garcia, corporation counsel for Detroit, in a statement. “The city does not belong in this lawsuit and we will ask to be dismissed from it.”

But when The News asked the corrections department for the mugshot in question, it said Detroit police would have that.

“We don’t have them or have any ability to give them out whether through media request or FOIA,” said Chris Gautz, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

As for the lawsuit itself, Gautz said: “We have not been served, and we do not comment on pending litigation.”

Detroit Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for the mugshot.

On April 30, 2019, Chabban and her ex-husband had a dispute at his Detroit home regarding child custody, the lawsuit says. It got physical and both of them fell off a porch together. They both called police, but the police never came.

Chabban had filed a restraining order against her ex-husband prior to that April encounter. A few weeks later, police arrested Chabban near her home. The officer who made the arrest drove her car back to her house, and put her keys in the mailbox, the lawsuit says.

When she got to the Detroit Detention Center for booking, police required she take off her hijab for the mugshot. She refused. They insisted. It went that way, the lawsuit claims, until an officer gave Chabban two choices: remove the hijab and take the mugshot as instructed, or sleep on the floor of the booking room with no bedding.

“It’s a very strict standard, it’s a very high burden that the government has to prove in order to infringe on your religious rights,” Amy Doukoure of CAIR-MI, Chabban’s attorney, told The News on Tuesday. “That was afforded to us by the U.S. Constitution, which trumps Michigan Department of Corrections policy every time.”

Doukoure said attempts to reach city and department of corrections officials about that photo policy have been unsuccessful.

She said that the alleged choice offered Chabban, between sleeping on the floor and removing the hijab, strengthens the case. The 17-page lawsuit was filed with the Eastern District of Michigan on Tuesday, court records show.

“When a person in custody is threatened with retaliation or discipline for refusing to voluntarily relinquish their religious rights, that is considered punitive action,” Doukoure said. “That is discriminatory and violative of constitutional civil rights and rule of law.”

The suit argues that it’s not just the removal of the hijab for the mugshot that was problematic, but the presence of men nearby while Chabban was uncovered, along with being forced to wear a wrist band with the uncovered photo on it. Women who wear hijabs do so for modesty, and in the presence of nonrelated men, the lawsuit explains.

That photo also exists in law enforcement databases now, and is subject to Freedom of Information Act searches. That availability of the uncovered photo compounds the alleged violation, the lawsuit argues.

“It’s not hyperbolic to say that taking a woman’s headscarf off and parading her around in front of men, and then making her wear that picture on her wrist and show it off to everybody that she passes is akin to making somebody strip naked, take a picture and then wear that picture around in front of strangers,” Doukoure said.

Chabban would face felony three charges related to the April incident — malicious destruction of a building, between $1,000 and $20,000, assault with a dangerous weapon, and domestic violence — but beat all three in an August 2019 jury trial, court records show.

The suit seeks a ruling that government policies in the matter violated Chabban’s religious beliefs. It seeks to prevent the department of corrections from requiring the removal of hijabs for mugshots. And it seeks damages for Chabban.

CAIR chapters in New York and Los Angeles have filed similar suits.

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©2020 The Detroit News