Citing Continued Police Denial of Racial Profiling, ACLU Renews Call for Federal Traffic Stops Law

May 16, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–The American Civil Liberties Union today renewed its call for Congressional sponsorship of legislation to address the problem of racial profiling, saying that local police denial of the practice continues and that comprehensive federally mandated legislation is needed despite state efforts to address the problem.

“The federal government should be leading the way, not lagging, in ending the shameful police practice of using skin color as evidence for suspicion,” said Rachel King, an ACLU Legislative Counsel.

For more than six years, Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, has sponsored legislation that would require the Justice Department to conduct a study of traffic stops to better understand the extent to which race determines who is stopped.

King noted that Attorney General Ashcroft, responding to a February 27, 2001 directive from President Bush, recently endorsed the idea of data collection and said the ACLU was hopeful that “the Republican-controlled Congress will listen to the new Republican Administration and finally pass this legislation.”

For years, Congress has stubbornly refused to act. Some Members of Congress, however, are refusing to give up and are preparing to introduce new legislation — the “Anti-Racial Profiling Act of 2001” — that would:

— Concretely define racial profiling and declare it illegal.

— Give victims of racial profiling the ability to sue police departments that have violated their rights.

— Allow the Attorney General to mandate data collection by federal and state law enforcement agencies on any police “stops,” including those done by police departments, immigration and customs agents.

— Provide grants to police departments to establish data collection and other management programs.

— Require the Attorney General to report on the results of the data collection studies.

In addition to seeking passage of the federal Traffic Stops Statistics Act, ACLU affiliates across the country have been active in securing state and local versions of the legislation.

For instance, in Maryland, which yesterday became the 13th state to enact legislation to address racial profiling — and where an ACLU lawsuit has resulted in six years of court monitoring of police traffic stops — recent statistics reveal that last year more than 63 percent of drivers forced out of their cars by state troopers were minorities.

But according to a front-page news article about the figures in today’s Washington Post, “police officials look at [these] numbers and find nothing wrong.” In an interview with the Post, ACLU client Robert Wilkins, whose case resulted in a 1997 court finding of a “pattern and practice of discrimination,” called Maryland “the capital of racial profiling in the United States.”

The reaction of the Maryland police, King said, “is all the more reason that lawmakers in our nation’s capitol must take the lead in ending this national disgrace.”

Another reason, King said, is that state laws often do not go far enough in defining the problem and implementing a solution. While the Maryland bill will ensure that raw data on stops is collected, it defines racial profiling as based “solely on race or ethnicity” — which are rare — rather than stops based in part on race and in part on pretexts such as a crooked license plate or erratic driving.

Several Democratic lawmakers, such as Senators Russ Feingold, D-WI, Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY, & Jon Corzine, D-NJ, and Representative John Conyers, D-MI, are drafting comprehensive legislation to stop racial profiling. “We urge Republicans to join these lawmakers in passing legislation that will go a long way towards ending this incendiary practice,” King said.

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