Race-based searches prohibited

January 05, 1995|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland State Police have agreed to prohibit troopers from stopping, detaining or searching motorists simply on the basis of race under a federal court settlement approved yesterday.

As part of the settlement, the state police will pay $12,500 to each of four black plaintiffs, who accused the department of violating their civil right because troopers relied on a racial profile that said most drug traffickers were black.

In addition, the state will pay $45,600 in legal fees.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a black Washington lawyer and his family, charged the state police with targeting black motorists for stops and searches.

State police officials said yesterday that the department never had or condoned a racial profile of drug traffickers and the settlement simply codifies current procedures.

"From our perspective, the things we agreed to in the settlement were things that the Maryland State Police have been doing all along since Colonel [Larry W.] Tolliver became superintendent," said Assistant Attorney General Richard B. Rosenblatt, who represented the department. "This agreement is to simply lay it out in writing."

But Robert L. Wilkins, one of the four plaintiffs, believes that racially biased profiles were prevalent in the department.

"I believe in my heart that there was a serious problem in the Maryland State Police," Mr. Wilkins said yesterday. "They wouldn't have agreed to our terms if they weren't concerned that there was a problem."

When Mr. Wilkins, 31, his cousin, aunt, and uncle were stopped by a state trooper in May 1992 on Interstate 68 in Cumberland, allegedly for speeding, his cousin, Norman Scott El-Amin, was at the wheel of a rented Cadillac with Virginia tags. The family was returning from a relative's funeral in Chicago.

"We suspected that it had something to do with our race, because we were all black,and the officer was white, and just some subtle things that came across," Mr. Wilkins said.

The group was detained for about half an hour as an Allegany sheriff's deputy brought a drug-sniffing dog to the scene. The dog found no drugs, and Mr. El-Amin was eventually given a $105 speeding ticket.

One document that Mr. Wilkins points to as evidence that troopers were targeting black motorists is a 1992 report circulated to a state-police supported Allegany County Narcotics Task Force.

"The dealers and couriers [traffickers] are predominantly black males and black females," the confidential report states.

The report goes on to state that drug traffickers are likely to travel in groups of two or three in rented vehicles, many displaying Virginia tags.

State police spokesman Lt. Gregory M. Shipley said that "information changes and varies with geographical areas," but that "we do not endorse nor do we train our troopers in a specific race-based drug-profiling effort."

But Mr. Rosenblatt, the state's lawyer, said that "1992 was a time of flux" because the Maryland Court of Special Appeals had ruled earlier that profiles of drug traffickers were valid. The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in the months after Mr. Wilkins and his relatives were pulled over.

At that time "there was a trafficking enterprise in the Cumberland area that involved African-American individuals and as a result of that, troopers in the area were more attuned to drug traffickers meeting that description," Mr. Rosenblatt said.

The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in 1992 in a separate case that a drug trafficker profile that included race was not sufficient cause to stop and search a black motorist.

The settlement also calls for the state police to file quarterly reports to the U.S. District Magistrate Judge Catherine C. Blake detailing the race of motorists and other factors in all searches consented to by motorists and searches involving drug-sniffing dogs. ACLU lawyers say the data will help them detect any racial patterns in drug searches.

The state police also must incorporate the prohibition against racial profiles into training of officers and new recruits.

Mr. Wilkins said he is satisfied with the settlement, but "it just doesn't compensate for the type of humiliation and degradation you feel when for no other reason than the color of your skin . . . you're charged and placed in a category of drug trafficker."

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