Profiles lose favor in drug interdiction Legal challenges say checklists target racial groups

December 10, 1996|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Criminal profiling -- glamorized in movies and television and used in high-profile murder and rape cases -- has become a taboo phrase among drug interdiction detectives, tainted by claims of racial and ethnic bias.

Developed as a kind of checklist to spot drug couriers, such profiles have been the target of successful lawsuits in Maryland, New Jersey and elsewhere by groups contending that they unfairly target certain groups when it comes to drug searches.

"The word 'profile' is a loaded term," said Lawrence Sherman, a University of Maryland criminologist who developed a successful gun-seizure program using traffic enforcement techniques similar to ones used by Maryland State Police in drug seizures.

Police looking for drug couriers on highways, in airports and train stations now say that, instead of a mechanical profile, they use subtle "behavior cues" and develop probable cause in identifying drug suspects.

"We don't call them 'profiles,' " said Special Agent Larry Hornstein of the Maryland office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "Because of the lawsuits, the word has bad connotations."

But experts also say that the techniques now touted by police aren't much different from the elements in a typical profile.

That's because elements of probable cause -- facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to think a crime was being committed -- often were found in the kind of profiles typically used by DEA and other agencies.

"They are backing away from it politically, but there is no case law that says they can't use profiles as long as they do not include any of the 'protected classes,' " such as racial groups, Sherman said.

Drug courier profiles came into vogue in the late 1970s, developed by the DEA and used at airports to stop passengers displaying behavior patterns consistent with drug couriers.

Such profiles were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. But at the state level, civil liberties groups have continued to challenge profiles, saying they violate Fourth Amendment rights by targeting people on the basis of race and ethnicity.

In a motion filed last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the American Civil Liberties Union accused state police of continuing to use race-based profiles to stop, detain and search motorists along a 44-mile stretch of Interstate 95 that is a notorious drug trafficking route.

Critics say profiles cast too wide a net, reining in not only criminals but innocent people who display similar behavior patterns -- such as paying for airline tickets with cash or driving a rental car along I-95.

"They sweep too broadly, and the challenge for police officers is to narrow them, and narrow down them objectively," said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, dedicated to improving police service.

Susan Goering of the Maryland ACLU said a profile can become "a self-fulfilling prophecy" because of the stereotypes of the law enforcement officials using them.

"If there are the same amount of white and black people selling drugs at an airport and they search only blacks, of course the 'find rate' tends to prove their profile," she said.

Maryland State Police have steadfastedly denied using race-based profiles. Department officials have said it is a coincidence that 73 percent of their searches along the 44-mile stretch of I-95 from Baltimore County to the Delaware line between January 1995 and September 1996 were done on blacks.

The ACLU claims that, according to its survey, only about 16 percent of the motorists along that same stretch of road are black.

In the past year, the percentage of blacks and the number of searches along that stretch of highway have declined. The special unit of drug interdiction troopers has been disbanded because troopers were needed for patrol duties.

Sgt. Walter Landon, who teaches troopers drug interdiction and works from the Annapolis barracks, said drug courier profiles that include such things as cars used or even a degree of nervousness from a driver who has been stopped, have become stereotypical and outdated.

"As soon as they know what we know, they change things," he said of drug couriers. "So, if they know that we know they use rental cars or a specific type of car, they will switch to something else."

Because of this, state police do not use a specific checklist or a profile, Landon said.

"We have had to take it one step further and hone our skills rather than rely on these profiles of any kind," Landon said.

Troopers are taught how to develop probable cause in the training academy. Landon, during training sessions, reviews search and seizure laws, as well as recent Maryland case law, with interdiction troopers.

Drug interdiction on the highway typically begins with a traffic stop, he said. It's almost a game of luck -- a trooper happens upon a drug seizure that began with a motorist being stopped for speeding or other moving violation.

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