Racial profiling settlement up for vote in Md.

Pact is part of agreement from class-action lawsuit

`A model for the country'

State police would devise a plan for reviewing stops

January 04, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

State officials are scheduled to vote next week on a settlement of a decade-old racial-profiling lawsuit against the Maryland State Police that would change the nature of traffic stops in Maryland and could set a nationwide precedent.

Under the terms of the agreement, the state would develop a system for tracking and reviewing the race of motorists who are stopped, establish a police-citizen panel to hear concerns about racial-profiling and set up a statewide 800 telephone number for complaints.

If approved by the state Board of Public Works on Wednesday, Maryland state troopers also would be required to give motorists they pull over a brochure about how to file racial-profiling complaints -- a measure that's drawing harsh criticism from some state police officers.

State troopers asking for consent to search cars would have to inform drivers that they have a right to refuse. Motorists who waive that right would have to do so in writing, according to the terms of the 20-page consent decree filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The agreement would also encourage state police to expand the use of video cameras in patrol cars to document traffic stops.

"What's monumental about this agreement -- what's really a model for the country -- is that this gives police the framework to both do their job and do it fairly," said Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. "This really represents a win-win-win. It's good for the public. It's good for the police because it protects them from unfounded complaints. And it's good for society because it ensures a fundamental confidence and trust in police."

But Lt. Nick Paros, acting president of the Maryland Troopers Association, says the agreement goes too far and would endanger state troopers.

"To ask a trooper to stand out on the interstate one second longer than is absolutely necessary is just incredible," he said. "I can't believe they'd risk an officer's life for any longer than they already do. I feel like those brochures are just going to escalate situations."

Although other states use some of the measures in the proposed settlement -- New Jersey state police videotape traffic stops -- civil rights activists say the Maryland agreement is the most comprehensive.

"It's precedent-setting," said Edythe Flemings Hall, president of the Maryland state conference of NAACP branches. "It's a model for the nation. The processes established here can be replicated nationwide. And we'll be advocating that."

The agreement was engineered partially to settle a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of scores of minority drivers who said they were victims of racial profiling. However, the legal battle began in 1992, when Washington defense attorney Robert L. Wilkins was stopped by a state trooper in Cumberland and refused to consent to a police search. He later filed suit, claiming he was stopped for "driving while black."

"I'm pleased with the agreement," Wilkins said yesterday in a telephone interview. "It took a lot of back-and-forth -- years of negotiations. There was give-and-take on both sides."

To settle Wilkins' lawsuit, in 1995 Maryland State Police became the first major police department forced to collect traffic data on racial profiling. After the data was reviewed in 1997, a federal judge found a "pattern and practice of discrimination." The next year, the ACLU filed another lawsuit on behalf of 14 additional plaintiffs and more than 125 people alleging they were profiled based on race.

The settlement of the lawsuits includes $325,000 for the plaintiffs' attorney's fees, but does not include monetary damages for the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. Any damages stemming from that suit will be resolved separately, said William J. Mertens, the ACLU's lead outside counsel.

If the Board of Public Works -- made up of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp -- does not approve paying the legal fees, the rest of the agreement will be void, officials said.

However, the board, which will be meeting for last time before Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is sworn in Jan. 15, is expected to approve the deal, which has received a favorable recommendation from the state Department of Budget and Management and the state attorney general.

Paros, of the troopers association, said in addition to opposing most of the agreement, he is also suspicious about its timing -- coming just seven days before Ehrlich is sworn in and before former Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris takes over as Maryland state police superintendent.

"It's almost like a parting shot," said Paros. "This thing has been an issue for years, and we're going to settle it so the new superintendent doesn't have a chance to look at the problem -- if there actually is one -- beforehand."

Paros pointed out that the consent decree doesn't specifically fault the state police for racial profiling.

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