Changes by Ehrlich delay profiling case

ACLU lawyers study settlement proposals

March 15, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Maryland officials said yesterday they're prepared to settle the state's historic racial profiling lawsuit April 2. But lawyers representing minority motorists who claim state troopers stopped them solely on the basis of their race said they weren't quite ready to sign off on the deal.

Although Comptroller William Donald Schaefer said he has reservations about the proposed agreement, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp support a modified version of the consent decree proposed this year to settle the class-action lawsuit.

American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, who are representing the motorists, still must accept the eight pages of clarifications proposed by Ehrlich's lawyers.

Last night, they were reviewing those changes.

"These pages propose some technical changes and what they call `clarifications,'" said ACLU attorney William J. Mertens. "We're working hard to respond quickly and hope we can reach an agreement soon."

State police Superintendent Edward T. Norris said the proposed settlement would be on the agenda when the Board of Public Works - made up of Ehrlich, Kopp and Schaefer - meets April 2.

Norris and Ehrlich had some concerns about the deal that was negotiated under former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

But at the superintendent's swearing-in ceremony yesterday, Norris said, "Most of what's being proposed I did when I was in Baltimore."

The proposed consent decree could change the nature of traffic stops by state troopers, who would be required to have written permission from motorists to search vehicles and to hand out pamphlets that would explain how motorists can file complaints.

However, the agreement allows for cases when it's not feasible for troopers to distribute the pamphlets or when it's unsafe to do so, which was one of troopers' objections to the consent decree.

And many troopers already obtain written consent to search vehicles they stop.

If approved, the consent decree would require state police to establish a police-citizen advisory panel to monitor reports of racial profiling and to review data about the race of motorists stopped.

The proposed $325,000 settlement would also cover legal expenses of minority motorists who joined the legal battle begun in 1992 by Washington defense attorney Robert L. Wilkins after he was stopped by a state trooper in Cumberland and refused to consent to a police search.

"We're pleased with the progress," said Shareese N. Deleaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman. "And we're confident we're near a resolution to the racial profiling issue."

Herbert H. Lindsey, president of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, had proposed a March 19 deadline for state officials to vote on the consent decree, saying if they didn't, the civil rights group would proceed with their class-action lawsuit and stop negotiating. But Lindsey said yesterday he was satisfied with the latest developments.

In particular, he pointed to the April 2 meeting and a written proposal they received yesterday from Ehrlich's lawyers about what needs to be clarified in the consent decree.

"We have a definitive date and document that we can review and see there's going to a mutual agreement," Lindsey said. "There's movement. It shows real progress."

Jervis S. Finney, Ehrlich's legal counsel, said, "Without making any prediction, the progress certainly appears to point to a favorable result. ... Our proposed clarifications do not impair the language of the original consent decree, except where obvious mistakes were made."

Kopp has supported a settlement since it was first proposed and said yesterday she remained committed to it.

But Schaefer said yesterday, "I'm not changing my mind until I see the new draft and they are able to convince me that patrolmen on I-95 and I-83 can make stops without worrying about incrimination."

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