ACLU Files Suit to Stop Racial Profiling by Utah Highway Patrol

June 28, 2000

 

SALT LAKE CITY,UT -- According to a story in today's Salt Lake Tribune, the ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an Arkansas writer against the Utah Highway Patrol for allegedly targeting ethnic-minority drivers on the state's roads.

"The [Utah Department of Public Safety] has a policy and practice of targeting certain individuals based principally on their perceived race or ethnicity, pulling them over for frivolous or nonexistent moving or equipment violations, and then subjecting them to unlawful detentions and searches," charges the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court. The full complaint is available at: http://www.acluutah.org/Kangcomplaint.htm.

According to the Tribune, Mani Kang, 24, a recent college graduate born in India, was traveling through southeastern Utah last summer on a tour of canyon country. He said he was driving north of Bluff on his way home from California -- staying in his lane, moving at the speed limit in a car with proper plates and registration stickers -- when he noticed a Utah Highway Patrol trooper following close behind. Kang says the patrolman tailed him for miles, even shadowing him as he stopped for gas. According to the ACLU, when Kang noticed the trooper inspecting his car, the gas station clerk warned him that the patrolman would "be waiting for you somewhere up the road. ... Anyone that doesn't seem from around here, he goes after ... especially if they're persons of color."

The Tribune reported that finally, about 10 miles north of Blanding, Trooper James E. Curtis pulled Kang over. For approximately the next 45 minutes, Kang waited in his car. Later, a second law enforcement officer arrived and the pair discussed Kang. In a videotape recorded inside Curtis' patrol car, Curtis explains why he was following Kang. "He was doing about 60 [miles per hour] back there by Blanding," Curtis said. "As he was passing, he gave me a kind of odd look. . . . Maybe he's legit. I don't know." The perception that Kang had given Curtis an "odd look" had more to do with Kang's skin color than his demeanor, contended attorney Stephen Clark of the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], who filed the federal civil-rights suit for Kang. But Utah Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Chris Kramer claimed the traffic stop had nothing to do with race. Curtis noticed Kang was driving about 5 or 10 mph slower than the flow of traffic, that he seemed nervous, and that he stopped to buy only about $4 worth of gas -- a possible attempt to lose the trooper, Kramer said. "Troopers are trained not to look for one thing, but several things," Kramer said. "This is a drug interdiction area. All of those things taken together could be a sign of drug trafficking."

But the ACLU and others are not convinced. "Numerous law-abiding citizens, including plaintiff, have been unlawfully stopped, detained and searched, leaving them frightened, intimidated, humiliated and feeling like criminals, when they have done nothing to warrant such treatment," the lawsuit states. Kang, who was issued a warning for traveling in a passing lane after Curtis searched his car with Kang's permission, hopes the lawsuit will make a difference. He and his ACLU attorneys are asking U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart to prohibit the highway patrol from targeting minorities -- a practice known as profiling. Kang is also seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys' fees. "I want to see a change, so that no one else has to go through this," Kang said, who returned to Utah for the filing of the lawsuit. "The tactics they use must be deemed unconstitutional."

use must be deemed unconstitutional." The Utah Highway Patrol is not alone in facing allegations of racial profiling -- law enforcement officers across the state and nation encounter the same criticism. A Utah state lawmaker recently proposed a bill that would require officers statewide to note the race of motorists they pull over. The measure passed the House during the 2000 Legislature but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. (More information is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/1999/w122299a.html .)

When officers are required to track race on the citations they write, as they have been in Maryland and New Jersey, the results can be disturbing. Maryland state troopers knew their work was being monitored. Nevertheless, 73 percent of the cars subjected to stops and searches were driven by African-Americans, while only 14 percent of the people on the road were black. The 1995 Maryland study also found that 70 percent of the searches of cars driven by blacks turned up nothing.

Another study of traffic stops in a Florida county showed that nearly 80 percent of the drivers who had been stopped were black. Their stops lasted longer and they were twice as likely to be searched. Similar patterns have been reported in New Jersey. Many people of color in Utah have complained for years that they are targeted by police for traffic stops. Salt Lake City police and the Utah Highway Patrol are currently recording the race of drivers they stop to determine whether profiling is occurring. (More information is available at: http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/w022700a.html.)

Kang "seeks to reaffirm what everyone in the United States has a right to expect," the lawsuit states: "That people of color may use the public highways without having to suffer the indignities of discriminatory treatment by government officials."

The lawsuit further alleged that, ". . . the DPS participates in a federally funded program sponsored by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency known as Operation Pipeline. The purpose of Operation Pipeline ostensibly is to remove drugs and weapons from the nation's highways. Operation Pipeline encourages officers to rely on minor or non-existent traffic violations that can be used as an excuse or `pretext' to stop motorists that seem `suspicious.' Once a stop has been made, officers engage in persistent questioning unrelated to the alleged underlying violation. Officers are trained to seek consent to search - which most unwary motorists give - in an effort to obviate the need for probable cause."

The ACLU alleges this tactic was used on Kang. The ACLU wrote U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno on June 4, 1999, urging her to institute various reforms in the DEA"s Pipeline program in order to prevent racial profiling. (See http://archive.aclu.org/congress/l060499a.html.) When the Justice Department entered into a consent decree with the New Jersey State Police in to address racial profiling concerns, the ACLU noted that the problem was not limited to one state and again pointed out the need for the problems in the Pipeline program to be addressed. (See http://archive.aclu.org/news/1999/w122999a.html.)

The ACLU has brought similar racial profiling lawsuits against state police drug interdiction activities in a number of other states including California ( http://archive.aclu.org/news/1999/n113099c.html), Oklahoma( http://archive.aclu.org/news/1999/n051899c.html), and Maryland( http://archive.aclu.org/news/2000/n030800b.html)."

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