Laws sought to get police to list race of motorists they stop

Congress, 4 states weigh bills after minorities complain of being targeted

January 06, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

LOS ANGELES -- Last June, California Assemblyman Kevin Murray was on his way to celebrate his victory in a state Senate primary race when his car was pulled over by a Beverly Hills police officer.

Though he can't prove it and the police department denies it, Murray believes he was stopped for being black.

For years, many law-abiding minority motorists, particularly African-American and Hispanic men, contend they have been stopped by police who demand to know what they are doing in a particular neighborhood, where they are coming from and how they acquired their vehicles.

Often dismissed by police as paranoid, Murray and others who have experienced such stops are part of a growing movement to document the incidents .

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California launched an effort last fall to record the complaints of minority motorists in California on a hot line. Callers flooded it during the first few minutes of the operation, forcing the ACLU to shut down the line temporarily to increase its capacity. So far, more than 500 people have lodged complaints.

The ACLU is hoping to use the data to get the California Legislature and Congress to require law enforcement agencies to collect racial information about the motorists they stop but do not arrest. Such data, Murray and other supporters assert, could spur changes in police policy.

Democrat Murray's police-monitoring bill was vetoed by Republican Pete Wilson in his last days as California governor. But as Democrat Gray Davis took office as governor Monday, Murray believes the measure has a better chance of becoming law.

The bill was modeled after a measure sponsored by Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. The Conyers bill was approved by the House, only to die in a Senate committee. Conyers has indicated he will reintroduce his measure in the new Congress. Lawmakers in Ohio, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania are considering similar legislation.

Statistics collected by the Maryland State Police appear to lend credence to the belief that minorities are stopped more than white drivers. The statistics were compiled as part of a settlement of a federal court suit in behalf of an African-American motorist.

The state police agreed to collect the data after the plaintiff uncovered an internal memo that warned troopers to target black men driving east on Interstate 68 as possible drug suspects.

The data, collected from 1994 to 1997, showed that while blacks made up only 18 percent of the motorists on interstate highways, they represented 80 percent of the people targeted for searches. The number prompted the court to extend the study to include all stops.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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