ACLU Files "Driving While Black" Lawsuit Against Rhode Island Police

May 15, 2001 12:00 am

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50-Year-Old Man Suffered Chest Pains After Being Held at Gunpoint


PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit against the Town of Westerly on behalf of Bernard Flowers, a 50-year-old African-American man who last September was illegally stopped in his car and suffered chest pains after being detained at gunpoint by town police.

The ACLU argues that Mr. Flowers was a victim of racial profiling whose right to equal protection of the law and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures was violated by the police.

“This lawsuit is intended to hold accountable the police who violated Mr. Flowers’ civil rights and to discourage others from engaging in this kind of racial profiling, which continues to be one of America’s greatest shames,” said ACLU attorney David N. Cicilline.

The incident started with a report to Westerly police from a town resident claiming that someone told him that “two black guys with a gun” were being sent to his house. The resident reported having seen a “small gray or black colored vehicle” occupied by “two black males” drive slowly by his home. He provided the police with no other description of the men or the vehicle.

Some 20 minutes later, Mr. Flowers was driving his gray car through town. Relying solely on the vague report, and despite the fact that Mr. Flowers was the only occupant in the car, the police pulled him over and then carried out what they call a “felony car stop.”

While the first officer waited for back-up, Flowers was ordered over a loudspeaker to stay in his car. When back-up arrived, Flowers was ordered to step out of his car while several officers, crouching behind opened police car doors, pointed loaded weapons at him.

Flowers said that he began experiencing chest pains as he realized that “with any error of movement they would shoot me dead.”

Flowers was then made to turn his back toward the officers with the loaded weapons pointed at him and walk backwards, at which point he “said my Hail Marys and made peace for my demise.” He was then handcuffed and ordered to his knees while several officers searched his car.

Finding nothing, the police released him. Not only did the police offer no apologies, they would not even assist Mr. Flowers in trying to telephone his wife for help with his medical condition. Rather, he was left to his own devices on the side of the road. He drove himself to Westerly Hospital, where he was medicated and later released.

“I was in total shock as this incident happened, and I have yet to recover from it,” said Flowers.

“If there is any doubt about the prevalence or deep-rooted nature of racial profiling in our society, one need look no farther than Mr. Flowers’ case,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island.

“If a person had been told that ‘two white males’ were going to his house with a gun, and without any other evidence, would the police have staked out roads to look for that car? Further, would they have relied on the virtually useless description of a ‘gray or black car’ to pull over the first such car they saw with only one white occupant in it? Unfortunately, the questions answer themselves.”

The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment that the stop and arrest of Mr. Flowers were unlawful, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

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