Black Army Sergeant Files Lawsuit After Terrifying Race Profiling Stop in Oklahoma

May 18, 1999 12:00 am

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Tuesday, May 18, 1999

OKLAHOMA CITY — The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a decorated Army veteran who was the victim of racial profiling by the state highway patrol.

lass Rossano V. Gerald, terrorized his 12-year-old son with a police dog and turned off the patrol car’s video evidence camera halfway through the ordeal.

The lawsuit — the first of its kind in Oklahoma — claims violations of federal civil rights law and of the Geralds’ constitutional rights to equal treatment and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ACLU is seeking unspecified damages on behalf of SFC Gerald and his son, as well as a court order requiring state troopers to stop racial profiling and to establish legal safeguards, including a traffic stops reporting system, to prevent future incidents.

s son in a closed car with the air conditioner off in the summer heat

  • isolated 12-year-old Gregory for questioning in a car with a barking drug dog
  • refused to follow Army protocol and advise SFC Gerald’s commanding officer of the stop

    In recent months, news reports have focused on incidents of racial profiling across the country, a phenomenon so widespread that many refer to it as “Driving While Black.” The ACLU has successfully defended numerous victims of the practice and in response to recent incidents used national advertising to seek other victims.

    But SFC Gerald’s experience, the ACLU said, is particularly troubling not only because he was assumed to be a drug dealer based on his skin color, but because the troopers’ actions were so repugnant.

    “There is an element of lawlessness to this traffic stop that is truly frightening,” said Reginald T. Shuford, an ACLU national staff attorney who is representing SFC Gerald. “It is disgraceful that a soldier who has traveled around the world representing United States interests should be made a prisoner in his own land.”

    According to the ACLU’s complaint, the ordeal began on August 13, 1998, when SFC Gerald crossed from Arkansas into Oklahoma on I-40 West, on the way to a family reunion in the state. He was making the trip in his red 1991 Nissan sports car with his son Gregory.

    On entering Oklahoma, SFC Gerald immediately noticed troopers in the area and drove with extra care. Nonetheless, he was stopped and questioned twice. In the first stop, the officer cautioned SFC Gerald about following another car too closely and departed without issuing a citation.

    Less than thirty minutes later, SFC Gerald was stopped a second time by a different set of troopers who claimed that he had not signaled a lane change while the officers were following him.

    When the troopers asked to search the car, SFC Gerald, aware of his rights, politely declined. In keeping with Army protocol, he asked the trooper to instead notify his commanding officer of the situation. The troopers refused throughout the incident to contact the officer or to allow SFC Gerald to do so.

    In its complaint, the ACLU said, one trooper misstated the law, claiming that he was allowed to search the car even without SFC Gerald’s consent. He then called in a K-9 unit from a second patrol car at the scene.

    When the dog failed to “alert” to the presence of drugs, the officers drilled beneath the floor of the car and claimed to find a “secret compartment” which was actually a footrest located under the carpet. During the search, the ACLU’s complaint said, Gregory Gerald saw an officer turn off the police videotaping system and remove the tape.

    SFC Gerald was then handcuffed and placed with his son in a patrol car with the warning that the dog would attack if they tried to escape. Despite the August heat, officers turned off the air conditioner, leaving the fan to blow hot air into the closed car.

    “They were literally turning up the heat on me,” SFC Gerald recalled. “I tried to reassure my son, who was very upset by this time, but after observing the officers’ behavior, I started to get nervous myself.”

    The troopers next moved 12-year-old Gregory to a separate car for questioning, without his father’s consent. As officers questioned him, Gregory was terrorized by a police dog in the back seat of the car, who kept barking at him. After seeing troopers search his bags, he was also convinced that his airline tickets home had been confiscated and that he would be abandoned on the road after his father was arrested.

    “It’s bad enough that the troopers harassed and humiliated me in front of my son,” SFC Gerald said. “But what I cannot forgive is the way they terrorized him, asking him if his daddy was a drug dealer.”

    After finally being released with nothing more than a warning ticket, SFC Gerald asked the troopers what they were going to do about the mess they had created of his car and baggage. The reply, he said, was: “We ain’t good at repacking.”

    Concerned that illegal contraband had been planted or that he might be stopped a third time that day, SFC Gerald next drove to nearby Fort Sill and asked army officers to conduct a thorough search of his car, including the use of drug-sniffing dogs, to document that he was not carrying any contraband. He also contacted his comanding officer to advise him of the situation.

    “Throughout his ordeal, SFC Gerald made all the right moves, while the troopers made all the wrong moves,” said ACLU attorney Shuford. “Despite how the troopers treated him and his son, he never abandoned his respectful manner or his dignity.”

    Joann Bell, Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma, said that she hoped the filing of the lawsuit — the first of its kind in the state — would prompt more victims to come forward.

    “With this lawsuit, the ACLU is sending a message to troopers in Oklahoma and around the nation, and that message is: driving while black or brown is not a crime,” she said.

    The case is Gerald v. Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, filed by ACLU attorney Shuford with the local assistance of Joel L. Carson of the law firm Carson & Mueller based in Oklahoma City.

    A copy of the ACLU’s lawsuit can be found at:
    Photos courtesy Rossano V. Gerald

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