ACLU, NAACP Ask Court to Approve "DWB" Class Action Lawsuit Against Maryland State Police
BALTIMORE, MD--Led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Maryland NAACP, a group of 14 minority motorists today asked a federal judge to approve their request to file a class action challenge to racial profiling by the Maryland State Police.
If granted status as a class action, the case could expose the state police to millions of dollars in liability to the potentially hundreds of minority motorists who have been stopped, detained, and/or searched by state troopers along Interstate 95 since April of 1995. According to the ACLU, more than 80 qualifying motorists already have come forward to participate in the case, with more expected to join if a class action is certified by the court.
"Throughout the civil rights struggle, class actions have proven to be a highly effective tool for fighting against patterns of discrimination and official misconduct," said Jenkins Odoms, President of the Maryland NAACP, a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.
"As the saying goes, there is strength in numbers," he added. "And here, our pursuit of a class action will allow hundreds of victims of racial profiling to join together in fighting against this invidious discrimination perpetrated by the Maryland State Police."
The move to file a class action grows out of a 1998 ACLU lawsuit charging state troopers with engaging in "a continuing pattern and practice of race-based stops, detentions, and searches of minority motorists traveling Interstate 95 through Maryland." (Details on the lawsuit are online at http://archive.aclu.org/news/n060498b.html.)
Police records show that from January 1995 through December 1998 -- the period when nearly all of the plaintiffs in the case had encounters with troopers -- more than 70 percent of motorists stopped, detained, and searched along I-95 were African-Americans or other minorities. Yet only about 20 percent of motorists traveling I-95 are minorities, according to an ACLU survey.
In light of these lopsided statistics, attempts by the state police to have the lawsuit dismissed and to strike portions of the complaint failed. Citing the ACLU's statistical evidence and her own prior finding that state police troopers have engaged in a "pattern and practice" of discrimination along I-95, last September U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake rejected the state's contention that minority motorists lack standing to bring suit under civil rights laws and that state police officials are immune from liability.
"In pursuing this case, and in seeking certification on behalf of a class, we hope finally to prompt the state of Maryland and the Maryland State Police to face up to this serious problem," said ACLU attorney Deborah A. Jeon.
Judge Blake's nationally significant decision rejecting the State Police motions -- issued amid a flurry of court filings attacking profiling across the country -- cleared the way for the request for class certification filed by the plaintiffs today.
Legal papers filed with the court today include sworn declarations by people who experienced, first-hand, racial profiling as practiced by Maryland State Police troopers on I-95. Following are just a few examples:
-- On August 18, 1996, Janice Springs of Silver Spring, Maryland, and a friend, both of them African-Americans, were stopped, searched, and detained for over two hours on I-95 in Harford County. They were returning home from a weekend shopping trip to New York. Although they were driving within the speed limit, a trooper pulled them over, separated them, and began grilling them separately about their travels. Three more cruisers arrived, and the troopers began an exhaustive, but fruitless, search of the car and its contents. The troopers even removed the lining from the trunk in their quest. Throughout, the troopers were accusatory and hostile. Eventually, they let Ms. Springs and her companion go, but the experience was frightening and distressing. Ms. Springs said: "What had started out being a pleasant trip to New York ended up a horrific nightmare, and we have the Maryland State Police to thank for it."
-- On November 15, 1998, Gregory Callis and a friend, African-Americans from New York, were on their way to visit relatives in Virginia whey they were stopped and searched by State Troopers on I-95 in Cecil County, Maryland. This encounter lasted about an hour. Troopers grilled them about their travels, then pressured Mr. Callis to "consent" to a search of the vehicle. The police proceeded to search throughout the interior of the car (front and back seats), under the hood, and in the trunk. They found nothing. Only then, an hour after the stop began, did the troopers let Mr. Callis and his friend go.
-- On December 3, 1998, Levander Jones of Bennettsville, South Carolina, was driving south on I-95 in Cecil County with his cousin. Both men are African-American. They were returning from New York, where they had gone so that Mr. Jones could return his nephew to college, and the cousin could visit his sick grandmother. When they pulled out from a rest stop, a State Trooper began following them. From time to time, the trooper pulled alongside to look in. After a few minutes, the trooper pulled Mr. Jones' car over, ordered the two men out, frisked them, and separated them for a grilling. Mr. Jones refused the trooper's request to search the car, but ultimately, seeking to bring the encounter to an end, the cousin told the trooper he could look into the car. The trooper proceeded to search the entire car and its contents. He went under the hood and through the trunk. He examined the seats and even inside the headrests. He scrutinized the contents of their suitcases, going so far as to squeeze out toothpaste and examine it. He opened up sandwiches they bought at the rest stop. Despite his efforts, the trooper found no contraband -- because there was none to be found -- and only then let Mr. Jones and his cousin go.
-- Kenneth Moody is an African-American male and a Fire Marshal with the New York City Fire Department. On December 13, 1995, he was going with his cousin to Virginia for the funeral of Mr. Moody's uncle, when two Maryland State Troopers pulled them over on I-95 in Harford County. The pattern was similar as with the other stops. The troopers separated Mr. Moody and his cousin for separate grillings. They pressured Mr. Moody to allow a search. When he protested, they threatened to arrest his cousin, and only then did Mr. Moody relent. A thorough search of the car, including both seats, the hood, the trunk, and the underframe, revealed nothing suspicious. Finally, after about a half an hour, the troopers let Mr. Moody and his cousin leave.
For far too long, racial profiling and stops for the "offense" of "driving while black," or "DWB," has been a fact of life for minority motorists. A recent Gallup poll showed that majorities of both whites and blacks believe that racial profiling is widespread. Moreover, four out of ten blacks and almost three quarters of young black males nationwide reported they had been stopped because of their race.
A June 1999 ACLU report, "Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our Nation's Highways, documents many more incidents of racial profiling and makes five recommendations to end DWB including a call for the U.S. Department of Justice to end the use of racial profiling in federally funded drug interdiction programs. (The report is online at http://archive.aclu.org/profiling/report/index.html.)
Working with its 53 affiliates and grassroots and community groups across the country, the national ACLU has undertaken a major initiative to put an end to discriminatory police stops, including the launch of an "Arrest the Racism" campaign. This special web-based campaign, online at http://archive.aclu.org/profiling/, is designed to educate the public and enlist citizens in the fight to end racial profiling in America.
"Profiling is a form of vile racial stereotyping,"said ACLU cooperating attorney William J. Mertens, of the Washington, D.C. law firm Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman. "Its day has long since gone. The goal of this lawsuit is to end the practice of racial profiling by Maryland State Troopers, so that motorists of all races and backgrounds may enjoy the same right to travel freely along the highways of this state."
Counsel for the plaintiffs are: Mertens, and Jonathan Guy, of the Washington, D.C. law firm Swidler & Berlin; Deborah A. Jeon and Dwight H. Sullivan of the ACLU of Maryland; and Reginald T. Shuford of the national ACLU office in New York.