Long And Winding Road

Robert Wilkins' 'driving while black' case began 10 years ago and has hit yet another snag

February 06, 2003|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The day Robert L. Wilkins was pulled over by a Maryland state trooper and the car he was riding in searched, he was 29 years old and a newly minted lawyer about to learn how slow the wheels of justice turn. It was May 8, 1992, and he was on his way home to Washington from Chicago, where he'd attended the funeral of his grandfather. A light rain fell as the rented Cadillac his cousin drove entered the state's western mountains.

This was only days after a Los Angeles jury acquitted white police officers of beating a black motorist named Rodney King. Wilkins and his cousin, Scott El-Amin, along with his uncle, Nu'Man El-Amin, and his aunt, Aquila Abdullah, who sat in the back, talked about the King verdict en route to the funeral. On the way back, they tried to sleep.

In Chicago, they visited with relatives they hadn't seen in years and some Wilkins had never even met. They were reluctant to leave his grandmother, who'd been married to his grandfather for more than 50 years. For those reasons, they stayed later than intended and did not leave until around 6 that Sunday night. It was just before dawn on Monday when the trooper pulled them over. The officer said they were traveling 60 miles an hour in a 40-mph zone on Interstate 68 through the town of Cumberland.

Many years before, when Wilkins was a boy in Muncie, Ind., his mother, Joyce, had been driving from his grandmother's house one afternoon when they were pulled over by a white police officer. The officer asked if the bicycles on the trunk rack were theirs. Wilkins' mother, a single parent, did not make a scene. She taught Wilkins and his younger brother, Larry, who is deaf, the painful life lesson that black Americans have been teaching their children for years.

The trooper, after examining Wilkins' cousin's license and rental car registration, asked the cousin, a computer engineer and father of three, to step out of the car and follow him to the rear of the Cadillac. Wilkins, who was a public defender in Washington at the time, was due in court that morning. He became anxious as the questioning wore on.

Wilkins had worked hard to get where he was. He took a part-time job at 15 to help pay bills, and by his junior year of high school was putting in 40 hours a week at the fast-food restaurant Rax Roast Beef. As his mother says, "He hit the ground running and he never stopped." She was finance director for the Muncie Public Housing Authority, and she did bookkeeping part-time. They both worked to get him through high school, through a chemical engineering degree at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., and then through law school after he was accepted at Harvard.

When Wilkins' cousin finally returned to the Cadillac without a speeding ticket, he said the officer wanted to search the car. Wilkins and his uncle got out then, to talk to the trooper.

It was while Wilkins was at Harvard that his brother was beaten during an altercation with police in Muncie. Wilkins was too far away to get the full details, but he was haunted by the knowledge that unless someone speaks directly to his brother, his brother doesn't hear and doesn't respond.

At Harvard, Wilkins and several other students were returning to campus from a movie or dinner - he doesn't remember which - when the campus police tailed them for no reason, he believes, other than because they were young black men. Wilkins was president of the black law students' organization at Harvard and during his tenure they staged a sit-in to draw attention to what they viewed as a low number of women and minorities on the faculty. After his first year, Wilkins took a summer job working with prisoners to ensure their rights. The next summer, he went to South Africa to help black lawyers during apartheid.

When Wilkins spoke to the Maryland state trooper, he told him he was a lawyer, he knew their rights, and they would not consent to any search. "We just wanted him to write a ticket if he was going to do so," Wilkins said, "and let us go."

The trooper told Wilkins if they didn't sign a consent and allow him to search, they'd have to wait for a drug-sniffing dog.

Wilkins had recently written a brief on the Fourth Amendment. "And I told him there was a 1985 Supreme Court case called United States vs. Sharpe that he'd be violating if he kept us there for a drug-sniffing dog because he had to have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that we had drugs or contraband to justify detaining us any longer than necessary to complete this traffic stop."

The trooper, who would eventually give Wilkins' cousin a $110 speeding ticket, told Wilkins now he was just following procedures.

Wilkins was outraged by the way he was made to feel, and the feeling would lead him to file a lawsuit. He would tell reporters afterward, "I was determined to do something about this because I don't consider myself a victim; I consider myself a warrior."

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