Legislator pays a price for 'driving while black'

This Just In...

July 14, 1999|By Dan Rodricks

TALMADGE BRANCH is 43 but looks about 30, wears fine clothes and drives a 1992 smoke-silver Mercedes Benz. He's also black. He figures that's why a Baltimore police officer pulled him over recently -- young-looking African-American male, luxury sedan, "driving while black."

There didn't seem to be any other reason for the late-night stop on June 22. Branch hadn't been speeding or swerving. He'd had only one glass of wine with dinner at Germano's in Little Italy. He hadn't run the red light at President and Fayette, near police headquarters. He hadn't thrown any trash out the driver's-side window.

Branch, parked in front of a patrol car on the Fallsway, just off President Street, at 11:15 p.m, did as requested -- he showed the officer his driver's license and registration. Then he asked why he'd been stopped.

"You have House of Delegate tags on your car," the officer, who was middle-aged and white, told Branch.

"Well," said Branch. "I'm a member of the House of Delegates."

Elected to the House from East Baltimore's 45th District in 1994, Branch has served in the legislature since 1995. He got his special license plates after taking office. State delegates and senators, and a lot of other elected officials and government employees, have special tags. You see them on cars all year.

"According to my book," Branch says the cop told him, "you're not supposed to be driving with your delegate tags while you're not in session."

"I don't know what you've been reading," Branch told the officer, "but you're incorrect."

"I don't think so," the officer said. "Have a seat, sir."

Branch slipped back into his car.

About five minutes later, the officer returned, handed Branch his license and registration and said nothing further. He issued neither citation nor apology.

"What is your name, by the way?" Branch asked the officer.

"Norman," the officer said.

"Norman?"

"Norman."

Branch looked at the officer's badge. The officer, noticing this, rattled off his badge number. "What is your unit?" Branch asked.

"Tac," the officer snapped.

"I assume you mean the Tactical Unit," Branch said.

The officer got in his patrol car and drove away.

Branch, now more upset at the officer's rudeness than the driving-while-blackness, picked up his cellular phone, dialed the city operator, asked for the police and requested that a supervising officer meet him on the Fallsway. Fifteen minutes later, another officer arrived and took a report on the incident.

Since then, the police commissioner has apologized for what happened. And Branch has an appointment today at Police Headquarters to further discuss his encounter with "Norman."

This wasn't the first time Branch had been stopped for driving while black.

Three years ago, a city officer followed him to his house in East Baltimore, flashed his emergency lights, and ordered Branch to display his license and registration. The officer said he believed Branch had been driving a stolen car.

A few months ago, while Branch was driving through Towson, a Baltimore County officer ordered him to the side of the road. Within minutes, three other county patrol cars, all lights flashing, stopped at the scene, near Towson University. Branch, wearing a baseball cap and leather jacket, had been driving his Mercedes -- with his delegate plates -- through the morning rush hour. He was headed for home, then Annapolis.

"They told me they thought my car was stolen," Branch says of the county officers. "They said the tags didn't match up with the description of the car."

Maybe what didn't match was the car and the man -- in the mind of the cop who stopped him.

(My wife, who drives through the Towson area almost every day, plays a little game. If she sees that a Baltimore County police officer has stopped a white motorist along York Road, she treats herself to a "$20 shopping spree." She started playing this game because, over the last year, she's noticed that county police almost always stop black motorists on York Road. She hasn't awarded herself a shopping spree yet.)

Branch took the Towson incident in stride because the officers apologized -- profusely.

But the June incident in the city, his late-night encounter with "Norman," shook him up and made him a lot more concerned about the degree to which racial profiling influences police practices.

Branch started thinking about the possibility of racial profiling as a widespread phenomenon during the 1997 legislative session, when a bill on seat belts sparked an emotional debate in the House. The bill would have allowed police in Maryland to stop drivers and ticket them simply for not wearing their seat belts; they no longer would have to stop motorists for some other traffic violation first.

Branch heard fellow black legislators express fears that police would use the measure as an excuse for more driving-while-black traffic stops and further harassment of African-American motorists. (Branch and 63 other members of the House voted against the bill, but it ultimately became law.)

Last fall, seven Marylanders joined a class-action suit against the Maryland State Police over the practice of race-based traffic stops along Interstate 95. Calling it "Jim Crow justice," the American Civil Liberties Union said last month that skin color has become a substitute for evidence on the nation's highways. Declaring racial profiling by police destructive and wrong, President Clinton issued an executive order for research -- to move the matter "beyond anecdotes" and into actual data on who police stop and why.

Clinton's order covers federal law enforcement agencies. But local departments should do the same.

Maybe Talmadge Branch will suggest that when he's down at the ole HQ today. Assuming he doesn't get pulled over along the way.

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