The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed a federal lawsuit yesterday charging that state troopers illegally search the vehicles of black motorists who fit a "drug-courier profile."
The suit, filed as a class-action complaint in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, charges that troopers target young black men driving expensive cars without any reason to believe they have committed crimes.
The ACLU is seeking blacks who believe that troopers have searched them illegally on state roads to join the suit, which requests unspecified damages.
The suit also asks that the court stop police from using a race-based, drug-courier profile as a reason to search vehicles.
The Maryland Court of Appeals last year ruled that state police cannot use a drug-courier profile as a reason to search the vehicles of motorists.
David A. Hill of Washington, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said the ACLU's complaint case shows that troopers have used the profile.
The complaint describes the profile as a young black man or men wearing expensive jewelry, driving expensive cars such as sports cars, wearing beepers, and carrying lists of telephone numbers.
Capt. Johnny L. Hughes, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said he could not comment on specific allegations in the suit. But he denied that troopers use race as a reason to search cars of motorists when ferreting out drug couriers.
"Our bureau of drug enforcement schools our troopers in regard to drug interdiction," Captain Hughes said. "Nothing on race has ever come up in any of the classes I've ever attended."
The lead plaintiff in the federal suit is Robert L. Wilkins, 29, a Harvard Law School graduate who lives and works in Washington, where he is a public defender. Other plaintiffs are his cousin, Norman Scott El-Amin; his uncle, Nu'Man W. El-Amin, and his aunt, Aquila Abdullah, all of Virginia.
Named as defendants are the Maryland State Police, two troopers, an Allegany County deputy sheriff, three Allegany commissioners and Allegany County. Officials from Allegany County could not be reached for comment because offices were closed yesterday.
Mr. Wilkins claims in the lawsuit that the four plaintiffs were returning from a relative's funeral in Chicago last May 8 when TFC Bryan W. Hughes stopped them for speeding on Interstate 68 in Cumberland.
Court papers say the car was driven by Norman El-Amin, 29, who pulled over and gave the trooper his license.
It was about 6 a.m., and Mr. Wilkins' aunt and uncle were asleep in the back seat of the car, a rental Cadillac, Mr. Hill said.
The trooper went back to his cruiser, and returned to the vehicle to ask Mr. El-Amin to sign a release form consenting to a search, court papers say. Mr. Wilkins identified himself as a lawyer, who had a case in a Washington court that day, and told Trooper Hughes that he had no right to search the car unless he was arresting Mr. El-Amin. The trooper asked if they had 'nothing to hide,then what was the problem?' "
Another trooper arrived, and detained the car for a half hour while a narcotics-sniffing German shepherd was brought to the scene by an Allegany sheriff's deputy, court papers say. The plaintiffs were ordered out of the car. They refused at first, noting that it was raining, but got out because they were afraid of being attacked by the dog. The dog sniffed the car without visible reaction. The episode lasted about 45 minutes, court papers say.
Mr. Wilkins said yesterday that he filed the suit because the action violated his civil rights. "I was determined to do something about this because I don't consider myself a victim; I consider myself a warrior," he said. "I wanted to make sure that this stopped happening to other people."
Mr. Hill said the ACLU has received 30 complaints over the last five years alleging illegal searches by Maryland troopers. "We expect that with the publicity from this case, there will be many more than just 30," Mr. Hill said. "We suspect that this is a policy that's been in effect for a while."