Courts balk at limiting racial profiling

The case of Todd Williams, among others, points to judges' reluctance to curb police powers.

Todd Williams thought he had a strong case: He saw no earthly reason why local police had pulled him over on Highway 17 in Jacksonville, except that he is black.

After one officer pulled a pistol and the other patted him down, Mr. Williams managed at last to convince them that he was a North Carolina state trooper - off-duty and on the way to his parents' house in town. They gave him a ticket (for going 60 in a 55 m.p.h. zone) and waved him on - without apology, says Williams.

Trained by the state patrol to avoid racial profiling, Williams was confident he knew it when he saw it. He was steamed enough that he sued in federal court, charging that his right to be free of "unreasonable" search had been violated.

The judge, though, saw it differently. In a ruling that echoes other racial-profiling cases across the US, he found in favor of the two Jacksonville officers. The case is a telling reminder, legal experts say, that many judges respect the tradition of police discretion and are reluctant to curtail law enforcement's efforts to prevent crime.

"There's a lot of talk about racial profiling around the country, but in the courts there's very little action," says public defender Theodora Gaitas, who writes about racial profiling in Poor Stuart's Almanack, a law review in Minneapolis. "Very few of these cases are brought and even fewer are successful."

From acknowledgment of racial profiling by New Jersey police brass to studies in Raleigh, N.C., of driving habits of blacks versus whites, the perceived practice of pulling over drivers because of their skin color has become a cause celebre.

But courts are giving police, if anything, more latitude, not less, in conducting traffic stops, analysts say. It's particularly true of federal judges, but state courts, too, have sided largely with police in such cases (although some say they are more willing to curb over-the-top police tactics). Williams, in fact, is moving his case to the high court here in North Carolina.

Following the courts' lead

One reason judges are reluctant to tread on police powers is that courts themselves are, in many ways, the ones who established how far officers can go when interrogating citizens on the roadways.

"The courts, led by the [US] Supreme Court, made many changes in the law over the past 15 years that, in effect, allows profiling to take root as a police tactic," says David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio whose book about racial profiling, "Profiles in Injustice," is due out next year. "They have, at the same time, made it more ... difficult to challenge racial profiling in the courts."

A big blow to racial-profile lawsuits came in 1996, when the US Supreme Court declined to limit police ability to use race as a factor in making traffic stops. Of hundreds of complaints since then, a handful have come to judgment.

"One of the reasons you've seen so much more action on the legislative front is that the courts have made it really, really difficult to win claims along these lines," says Mr. Harris.

To win a racial-profiling case, the evidence must be incontrovertible, experts say. Usually, racial profiling can be a subtheme, but not the main plot, of a winning complaint, adds Ms. Gaitas. "You have to give the judge something else to hang their hat on."

In New Jersey, a racial-profiling case succeeded after the release of state police internal memos that detailed the practice for officers. In Maryland, documentation showing that police staking out Interstate 95 used written directives to pull over motorists from a particular African-American neighborhood led to victory for one black defendant.

Though the courts side more often with police, defense lawyers aren't giving up efforts to overturn minority clients' traffic tickets. The American Civil Liberties Union, for instance, has a dozen cases pending in eight states.

Trooper Williams, for his part, says his decision to break ranks and sue the two officers is not about "money-grubbing." He wants an apology and an admission of wrongdoing. "He wants to use his position to clean up the profession," says Ernie Wright, his lawyer.

Williams is not the first justice official to allege racial profiling on America's highways: A few years ago, a judge in Brownsville, Texas, was pulled over twice on his way to work, apparently because he is Hispanic. In 1993, a sheriff's deputy in Oregon won a civil settlement over profiling practices in his department.

While police officers have long used profiles to catch criminals, a more generalized practice emerged in the mid-1980s during the drug war, says the University of Toledo's Harris. As the US Drug Enforcement Administration gained success in profiling drug couriers at airports, street versions of those tactics began to appear in Florida. They were then taught to thousands of rank-and-file officers from San Luis Obispo, Calif., to Atlantic City, N.J.

Police argue that the law allows them to profile criminals, not ethnicity.

Still, governments from Missouri to North Carolina are busy enacting new guidelines for police. Five states have passed "DWB" (driving while black) laws, and 24 others are considering such measures.

Relief on Jacksonville's police force

According to Jacksonville's deputy chief, Sammy Phillips, the force here has strict orders not to engage in racial profiling and is keeping an eye out for any racial bias in traffic-stop patterns.

Deputy Chief Phillips, who was born in this muggy, military city on North Carolina's New River Sound, says this spring's verdict in the Williams case "was just." It's also something of a relief. The case had dogged the department and prompted renewed complaints from some citizens in this '50s-looking town, with its low lounges, frequent convoys, and small, brick-built neighborhoods.

"Police officers get into this line of work because they want to make a difference in society, to help people," says Phillips. "The majority of officers are going to treat people equally, like they should be."

But for Williams, the case quieted too quickly. It particularly irks him that the sergeant who brandished the pistol that hot summer day two years ago is now a captain.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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