While much of Europe has done away with passport checks, German police received judiciary approval to demand official ID of "foreign-looking" people. Human rights groups call the ruling discriminatory and illegal.
Passengers on trains travelling from Germany to France don't have to show their passports to cross the border, but a ruling from a German administrative court this week allows police to require "foreign-looking" passengers traveling on German trains to produce identification papers regardless of whether they are under suspicion of any wrongdoing.
The ruling stems from the case of a dark-skinned German arrested by federal police after he refused to show his identification papers while traveling in a regional train. The man, who was not identified by the court in the western German city of Koblenz, had a verbal confrontation with the uniformed officers and later sued them for discrimination after he was forced to identify himself because of his skin color.
During the court hearing, one of the officers said he approached people who looked foreign to him. The court ruled the officer was within his rights to use appearance, including skin color, as the only reason to check a person's identity. The plaintiff had argued that police only had the right to demand papers of someone they suspected posed an "immediate danger."
Means to fight illegal immigration
The court said police had authority to check people's identity and residency status based on their appearance to fight illegal immigration. The ruling added that such checks were permitted only on rail lines that could be used to provide illegal entry to Germany or lead to breaches of Germany's Aliens Act.
"For reasons of capacity and efficiency, the federal police are limited to conducting spot checks," the court said in its ruling, adding that the officers were within their rights to use appearance in deciding whom to check.
Police said the ruling would make it easier for them to do their jobs.
"In just the last year, illegal immigration has increased by 20 percent to more than 20,000 confirmed cases," said Josef Scheuring of the German police union, adding that fighting this crime justified stricter controls.
Police practice ethnic profiling
Rights groups, however, voice their strong opposition to the court's ruling, saying that no German court had ever allowed skin color to be the deciding factor in whether police could demand to check a person's identity.
"The federal police have exceptional powers to initiate checks without suspecting wrongdoing," said Petra Pollmar-Otto of the German Institute for Human Rights. "But what this ruling confirms is a breach of a human rights ban on racial discrimination."
The government had said it does not practice ethnic profiling while officers admitted they did
In response to an official inquiry by the Green Party, the German government in July 2011 wrote that legal checks of people not under suspicion of wrongdoing could not be conducted based on a person's origin, skin color or religion.
Karl Kopp of the rights group Pro Asyl said, "The court's ruling was not in accordance with the understanding of how police work in a democratic, constitutional state."
Alexander Klose, a Berlin-based lawyer who focuses on cases of discrimination, said he was surprised by the ruling.
"We now have legal evidence from a court showing that the federal police have regularly been practicing so-called ethnic profiling, that's something we did not know before," he said. "Such practices - that people can be selected for an identity check based on their appearance - have been denied until now by those responsible in the German Interior Ministry as well as the federal police."
Ruling can be appealed
Ahead of being taken into custody, the plaintiff in the case accused the police of using Nazi tactics by demanding to know his identity and searching his backpack after he refused to produce identity documents.
It has not been decided if an appeal will be lodged, but Klose said he saw grounds to do so.
"Employers, for example, are bound by the anti-discrimination laws and previous bad experiences with particular individuals cannot be an argument in the future," he said. "And what we rightfully demand of private employers and landlords we should also demand of the police as an organ of the state."
"Of course it is important that this ruling is corrected," said Kopp. "But it is just as important that the federal government clarifies laws dealing with suspicion-free identity checks so that a racial color code no longer plays a role in a country with millions of citizens who don't have pink skin."