ACLU Files Racial Profiling Lawsuit Against The California Highway Patrol

June 3, 1999 12:00 am

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Thursday, June 3, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO, CA–Charging race discrimination, the ACLU of Northern California today filed a major lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol and Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement.

The federal civil rights action asserts that highway patrol and narcotics officers systematically target, stop and search motorists on the basis of race when enforcing traffic laws and operating drug interdiction programs.

“The California Highway Patrol routinely violates the rights of African American and Latino drivers by targeting them on the basis of race,” said Michelle Alexander, Director of the ACLU of Northern California’s Racial Justice Project.

“The so-called war on drugs has taken a tremendous toll on the vast majority of people of color who are innocent and law-abiding, yet treated like criminals for extremely minor traffic violations or for no reason at all,” she added. “We intend to put an end to racial profiling in the State of California. The lawsuit filed by Mr. Rodriguez today is an important step in that direction.”

On June 6, Curtis Rodriguez, a Latino attorney from San Jose, observed five traffic stops and at least ten highway patrol and narcotics bureau vehicles within a 10-mile stretch. All of the persons stopped were Latino and all were observed standing outside of their cars by the side of the highway.

Distressed by what he was witnessing, Rodriguez and his passenger, Arturo Hernandez, decided that it was important to document these race-based police stops to prove to others what they had seen. Hernandez took pictures of the fourth and fifth stops of Latino drivers, while Rodriguez concentrated on obeying the speed limit and all traffic laws, to avoid giving the police any excuse to pull them over.

Despite these precautions, a highway patrol vehicle pulled behind Rodriguez and began to follow his car soon after they passed the fifth stop. The officer told Rodriguez that he had been pulled over because his car “had touched the line” and because he had not turned his headlights on (drivers are advised to turn on their headlights in this section of Highway 152).

“The officer told me he was going to search the car for weapons,” said Rodriguez. “I refused permission for the search. Since I’m attorney, I know my rights. The officer had no probable cause to search the car, so I refused consent to search. But the officer refused to respect my legal rights. He ordered me out of the car and searched the car, without my permission. Of course, he found nothing illegal. The officer then checked out my license, my passenger’s license and my insurance papers, and after ten minutes, he ordered us back into the car. We sat waiting twenty more minutes in the car, and then finally, he told us we could go. He didn’t issue me a ticket, because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Rodriguez’ experience was hardly unusual, the ACLU said, noting that in 1997 alone, the highway patrol canine units — part of a drug interdiction program called Operation Pipeline — stopped nearly 34,000 people but found less than 2% of them were actually carrying drugs.

“We believe that the vast majority of these stops were based on race, and we intend to prove it,” said Alexander.

Today’s lawsuit follows an ACLU national and statewide campaign to stop race-based police stops. In April, the ACLU of Northern California announced a billboard and radio ad campaign in English and Spanish to publicize its toll-free “Driving While Black or Brown” hotline, 1-877-DWB-STOP. (The Spanish Language hotline is, 1-877-PARALOS.) Since the hotline’s initiation in October, over 1600 people have called to report their stories of discriminatory traffic stops.

On June 2, the national ACLU issued a report on the problem of racial profiling, “Driving While Black: Racial Profiling On Our Nation’s Highways.” The report cites police statistics on traffic stops, ACLU lawsuits, government reports and media stories from around the nation, demonstrating that law enforcement routinely discriminates on the basis of race when stopping and searching people on the road.

Joining the ACLU in filing the lawsuit today is Keker & Van Nest, a major law firm in San Francisco that is donating its services pro bono.

“It is critical for us, as members of the private bar, to play an active role in bringing to an end race-based police stops in California,” said Jon Streeter, a litigation partner at Keker & Van Nest. “What the CHP is doing is illegal. It violates federal civil rights laws, the U.S. Constitution, and is utterly inconsistent with our democratic values. We are ready and willing to fight racist police practices and hold law enforcement accountable in a court of law.”

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