Racial profile suit to go to trial June 5

Judge rejects efforts of mall attorneys to delay 4-year-old case

$1.2 million sought

Mother says 2 boys were held, searched on leaving toy store


May 12, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins and Lisa Respers | Jamie Smith Hopkins and Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

A Laurel mother's lawsuit alleging racial profiling at The Mall in Columbia is scheduled to go to trial next month, four years after she filed the suit.

Howard County Circuit Judge James B. Dudley rejected this week efforts by mall attorneys to postpone the trial. It is scheduled for June 5.

Prince George's County resident Sandra Allen is seeking $1.2 million in punitive damages as well as compensatory damages to be determined at trial.

The suit says that Allen, her son and his friend, all of whom are African-American, ate at a mall food court Dec. 21, 1995. Afterward, the boys, both 14 at the time, went into Learningsmith, an educational toy shop.

As the boys were leaving, they were stopped by Learn- ingsmith employees and mall security guards, who told the boys to empty their pockets and open their jackets, according to the lawsuit.

The boys complied and were searched, the suit says. A Learningsmith employee told Allen that no workers had seen the boys steal anything, the suit says.

When Allen, the boys and other family members tried to leave the mall, guards detained them, according to the suit. The boys were searched again before a crowd of shoppers, and employees said they also wanted to search Allen, the suit says.

Also named as defendants are mall security guards and store employees. The lawsuit originally was filed in U.S. District Court in 1996. Attorneys filed it in Circuit Court last year after a judge ruled that there were no grounds at the federal level.

An official with the Rouse Co., which owns The Mall in Columbia, declined to comment on Dudley's Wednesday ruling.

"Corporate policy prohibits me from speaking about any act of litigation," said Nancy Tucker, a Rouse Co. spokeswoman.

One of Allen's lawyers said yesterday that the family is eager for the trial to begin.

"It has been a long time in coming," said Kevin Lyskowski, one of two attorneys for Allen and the youths. Lyskowski said the family was "humiliated" by the searches, which he said found no evidence of shoplifting. The suit says that the family and the friend were detained almost an hour.

Pamela A. Rucker, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, based in Washington, said diversity issues were discussed last year at an annual "loss prevention" convention.

Rucker said merchants and companies are more sensitive to the subject because of high-profile lawsuits, such as one against national clothing retailer Eddie Bauer. In 1997, a Prince George's County jury ordered the retailer to pay $1 million in damages for detaining a black teen-ager, accusing him of shoplifting and sending him home without the Eddie Bauer shirt he had purchased the day before.

"Retailers have begun to examine their policies and really reiterate and reinforce the no-tolerance policy for racial profiling," said Rucker, whose organization is the world's largest retail trade association. "We employ 20 million people, and unfortunately when you have 20 million employees, you are going to have people who bring their bad attitudes into the store."

Though there is no industrywide initiative, Rucker said, many stores have stepped up initiatives such as sensitivity training for employees.

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