Eliminating race-based searches

January 09, 1995

The settlement agreement reached last week between the Maryland State Police and four black plaintiffs who accused the department of violating their civil rights when they were detained and searched for narcotics during a routine traffic stop is a reminder of how easily racial stereotypes can prove harmful.

The four plaintiffs, who included a young Harvard Law School Graduate and lawyer with the District of Columbia Public Defender Service, were returning to Washington from a family funeral in 1992 when they were stopped by a state trooper on Interstate 68 near Cumberland for allegedly traveling 60 mph in a 40 mph zone.

The trooper, apparently concerned about reports of an fTC African-American drug ring operating in the area, asked permission to search the car. When the driver refused, the trooper ordered the party out and had the exterior of the car searched by a narcotics-sniffing dog brought to the scene.

No drug were found. The travelers later filed suit alleging they were searched solely because of their color, charging that police acted on the basis of a racial "drug courier profile" that unfairly singles out innocent blacks, Latinos and other minorities.

The State Police denied that troopers in Maryland use race-based profiles. But minorities have long suspected that police use such profiles, either officially or unofficially.

The settlement, which awarded $12,500 to each of the four plaintiffs, prohibits troopers from stopping, detaining or searching motorists simply on the basis of race.

Maryland is not the only state where black travelers have complained of race-based searches. The Supreme Court has ruled the practice unconstitutional "without a reasonable, articulable suspicion of drug activity."

No one wants to hinder legitimate law enforcement. Interstate drug trafficking is a serious problem and officers need reasonable latitude in determining grounds for detaining and searching motorists.

But would a white family of four in similar circumstances have been treated the way these plaintiffs were? This case ought to serve as a wake-up call for law enforcement officials across the country.

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