State settles bias case

Board OKs agreement in racial profiling suit

Traffic stops to be videotaped

Targeting of black drivers by troopers led to litigation

April 03, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

The state Board of Public Works approved a settlement yesterday of a racial profiling lawsuit against the Maryland State Police, ending a legal battle that began a decade ago when an African-American lawyer was stopped by a trooper in Cumberland and his car searched for drugs.

Under the terms of the settlement, state troopers must videotape traffic stops, document the race of each motorist they stop and search, and distribute brochures explaining motorists' constitutional rights.

"After 10 years and far too much litigation ... we're going to put this behind us," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday. He and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp voted in favor of the settlement. State Comptroller William Donald Schaefer voted no.

Maryland troopers must also obtain written consent before searching vehicles they've stopped, according to the terms of the 20-page consent decree filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The state has agreed to establish a police-citizens panel to help resolve complaints about racial profiling.

The state does not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement, which includes $325,000 for plaintiff's legal fees. Robert L. Wilkins, the Washington lawyer who began the legal battle in 1993 when he filed a federal lawsuit against the police claiming they stopped him for "driving while black," said the consent decree is a positive step.

"These management reforms go a long way toward police becoming more responsive and accountable to racial profiling," Wilkins said yesterday.

Herbert H. Lindsey, president of the Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, called the agreement a model for police and law enforcement agencies throughout Maryland. "Because of this, law-abiding citizens will be able to drive without the fear of being stopped because of their race," Lindsey said.

Maryland State Police Superintendent Edward T. Norris said the settlement will also protect troopers. "I want a camera in every patrol car. I think it will reduce the number of false complaints," Norris said. "This lawsuit has been a cloud over our troopers' heads."

Even Schaefer, who was concerned police would feel restricted by the terms of the agreement, went on the record yesterday as supporting the consent decree, though he voted against paying the lawyers' fees.

Kopp reiterated her support for the settlement, which Wilkins helped prepare. The agreement does not include monetary damages for the plaintiffs.

The original lawsuit filed against state police stemmed from a trooper's stop and search of Wilkins, who claimed he was singled out because he fit a profile -- a black man and his relatives in a rental car.

State police had been advised that drug dealers in the Cumberland area were predominantly black and favored rental cars. Wilkins, a Harvard-trained lawyer, and his relatives were on their way to Washington from a funeral in Chicago and stood on the side of the road in the rain while their car was searched. No drugs were found.

In 1995, as part of the settlement of that suit with Wilkins, Maryland State Police became the first major police department in the nation forced to collect data on traffic stops.

After the data were reviewed in 1997, a federal judge found a "pattern and practice of discrimination." The American Civil Liberties Union filed another lawsuit in 1998 on behalf of 14 minority plaintiffs and more than 125 people alleging they were searched because of their race.

In January, after three years of negotiations, the settlement of that suit was scheduled on the Board of Public Works' agenda.

But Ehrlich delayed the board's vote so his administration could make changes in the consent decree negotiated by the departing administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"It seems to me that we've improved this agreement," Ehrlich said.

ACLU lawyers and the plaintiffs said the modifications requested by Ehrlich and Norris were not substantial.

"They really were improvements -- clarifications and expansions of what was already in the consent decree," said Susan Goering, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland. "I think it's been a good process and the result is right. Police have to have the confidence of the people they police or our democracy doesn't work."

Norris wanted to clarify that the state police would make improvements in their video equipment and training as their budget allowed.

He also said he wanted to include more in the brochures given to motorists, such as information about terrorist warnings, Amber Alerts for missing children and police procedures in traffic stops.

State police union leaders said yesterday that they still have concerns about the officers' safety while they distribute brochures but are otherwise hopeful the settlement will have a positive impact on the agency.

"This has been a difficult struggle for all of us," said Gary D. Rodwell, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "Hopefully this will be a model for other states to increase the quality of their law enforcement."

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