Plaintiffs tell of racial bias by state police in I-95 stops Commander of force says 'profiling' not condoned

June 05, 1998|By Paula Lavigne | Paula Lavigne,SUN STAFF

Gary D. Rodwell says fear and paranoia travel with him when he drives along Interstate 95 in Maryland -- a result of being stopped by a state trooper more than two years ago and threatened with arrest if he did not allow a search of his vehicle for drugs.

The reason he was stopped, the 42-year-old Philadelphia resident contends, is that he is black.

Rodwell related his story yesterday at an American Civil Liberties Union news conference announcing a class-action lawsuit against the Maryland State Police, alleging the use of race-based profiling in drug searches along I-95 in traffic stops from 1992 through last year.

The state police also held a news conference yesterday at which the agency's superintendent, Col. David B. Mitchell, stated, "The Maryland State Police has not, does not and will not ever condone the use of race-based profiling."

Rodwell's account is similar to those of the 10 other individuals who are plaintiffs. They were joined in the suit by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They contend that the state police practices are unconstitutional and violate a 1995 agreement in which the state paid $12,500 each to four plaintiffs who alleged discrimination.

A Baltimore native, Rodwell said he repeatedly refused to consent to a search of his Pontiac Bonneville when he was stopped for three hours along the southbound lanes in Harford County on Jan. 17, 1996.

He said the trooper threatened arrest and called for assistance from an officer with a drug-searching dog. The trooper was angry when no drugs were found, accused Rodwell of lying, took his keys and called a tow truck to impound the Pontiac, Rodwell said.

Rodwell maintained he had done nothing to warrant that treatment.

Sgt. Paul Quill, who was among 24 troopers and officers named in the suit and reviewed the cases involved, said after the police conference that he knew of only one case in which a car had been towed -- and it was because the driver had a suspended or revoked license.

Rodwell could not be reached later for comment.

Five plaintiffs told their stories at the ACLU session held at the Episcopal Diocesan Center in Baltimore, describing white police officers trying to coerce "consent" to searches, making racial comments, removing belongings from their vehicles and leaving the belongings strewn along the highway.

"We hope that Maryland will be an example nationwide to end what is a continuing wrong," said Washington-based ACLU attorney William J. Mertens.

In the 1995 agreement, the police agreed to not use race as a factor in drug searches and to keep records of all traffic stops and drug searches. The ACLU said none of the plaintiffs received a traffic citation and there is no record of their searches.

At the police news conference, held at the Waterloo barracks in Jessup, authorities displayed drugs, weapons and cash confiscated in traffic stops, and Mitchell presented statistics on traffic stops between June 1996 and March 1998. They showed 32,727 white drivers and 14,048 black drivers were pulled over by troopers.

Of the whites, he said, 81 consented to searches and the vehicles of 85 others were searched on the basis of probable cause -- when an officer has visible evidence to warrant such action without consent. Of the 166 searches, 58 resulted in an arrest.

Of the African-Americans, Mitchell said, there were 89 consent searches and 98 for probable cause. Of the 187 searches, there were 83 arrests.

Mitchell said officers can stop a vehicle only for a traffic violation or improper equipment, and have no criteria on physical appearance or race in seeking consent to search. He said they look for indications of drugs or weapons in the vehicle.

Mitchell noted that two troopers named in the lawsuit have been fired -- one for stealing confiscated drug money, the other for soliciting a sex act from an undercover police officer.

Lt. Keven L. Gray, commander of the Kennedy Highway barracks, where more than a third of the 46 police officers are black, said all of his troopers have taken sensitivity training, and he was certain that they are operating within the law.

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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