State settles bias lawsuit

'98 race-profiling case against troopers ends in $400,000 payment

April 03, 2008|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN REPORTER

Maryland has agreed to pay about $400,000 as part of a settlement of a decade-old federal lawsuit alleging that state troopers used racial profiling in deciding which drivers to pull over on Interstate 95.

The agreement to end what had become known as the "driving while black" lawsuit was announced jointly yesterday by the state police and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the action in 1998.

After the announcement, the settlement was approved by the state Board of Public Works.

As part of the settlement, the state will pay $300,000 in damages and legal costs. It will also pay $100,000 to retain a consultant to assess the progress the police agency has made in avoiding racial profiling since it entered into a consent decree in 2003 disavowing the practice.

David Moore, an assistant attorney general, said $180,000 of the settlement will go toward legal costs and $120,000 will be split evenly among six plaintiffs. He noted that a judge had dropped the Maryland State Police as a party to the case in 2006 but that six individuals who were troopers at the time of the incidents were still defendants.

The 2003 order did not resolve the individual claims of the plaintiffs, who alleged that they had been targeted based on their race, but the settlement announced yesterday does. State police also agreed to take several steps - including monitoring, data collection and the installation of video cameras in police cruisers - to eliminate any possible racial bias in traffic stops.

Reggie Shuford, an ACLU attorney who has been working on the case since it was filed, said the police have made "significant progress" since the 2003 decree.

"While they've made strides, no one has suggested it has been a perfect process since 2003," he said.

State Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, who as a House of Delegates member in 2001 sponsored successful legislation seeking to curb racial profiling, welcomed the settlement.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's finally here," she said. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat who represents a largely black district, said that while complaints about profiling have not disappeared since the 2003 decree, "they've slowed down a lot."

The state police referred questions about the settlement to the attorney general's office.

Moore, the assistant attorney general, said that if the state had lost at trial, the plaintiffs' attorneys were prepared to seek at least $3 million in legal fees alone.

"This is a reasonable resolution of the remaining claims for the defendants and, given that they accepted, the plaintiffs as well," Moore said.

A joint statement issued by the state and the ACLU said racial profiling is now widely recognized as an important civil rights issue.

"The need to treat motorists of all races with respect, dignity, and fairness under the law is fundamental to good police work and a just society," the statement said, adding: "The parties agree that racial profiling is unlawful and undermines public safety by alienating communities."

The lawsuit was brought 10 years ago this week on behalf of 18 black plaintiffs - a number that was later reduced to six by the judge's ruling in 2006 - who alleged that Maryland state troopers had detained them after I-95 traffic stops that they believed were conducted as a result of racial profiling.

The suit said the stops occurred from 1995 to 1997. In addition to the ACLU, the plaintiffs were represented by attorneys from the firm Hogan & Hartson, who donated their services.

The incidents recounted by the six remaining plaintiffs - John S. Means, Kenneth R. Jefffries, Gary D. Rodwell, Verna Bailey, Johnston E. Williams and National Guard Lt. William M. Berry - were similar in that all alleged that they had either had their cars searched or had been pressured to waive their constitutional right to say no to a warrantless search.

Berry, an African-American who lives in North Carolina, said he was 26 when he was stopped in May 1996 by two Maryland troopers who did not explain their reason for pulling him over. He said one of the troopers detained and searched him after he was unable to show his registration fast enough.

According to Berry, the trooper ordered him out of his car and asked whether he was carrying drugs or a weapon. The plaintiff said that when he hesitated to grant permission to search his car, the trooper threatened to arrest him for obstruction of justice. Under that pressure, Berry said, he then agreed to a search in which no contraband was found. He said he was detained for about an hour.

In an interview yesterday, Berry said the incident made him feel "real low."

"It made me feel like I was on the ground - that I had no rights," he said.

Berry called the agreement "wonderful" and said he was satisfied with his $20,000 share of the settlement.

"It was never about the money. It was about change and how they treat people," he said.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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