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Minorities Targeted for Traffic Stops, 
Says ACLU Report


Summer 1999

According to a report released on June 2 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), America's police officers engage in racial profiling in traffic stops, and the root of such racial profiling is the war on drugs. Additionally, the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) "Operation Pipeline" is a major factor in such profiling, instructing agents to use race as one of the factors used in stopping motorists in order to search their cars for drugs. The report includes case studies from 23 states, indicating discriminatory results and purposes. But the 43-page report does not include a nationwide statistical analysis of the practice (Kevin Johnson, "ACLU: Racial profiling threatens justice system," USA Today, June 2, 1999, p. 3A; Donna De La Cruz, "Racial profiling is rising nationwide, an ACLU study reports," Philadelphia Inquirer, June 3, 1999; Gary Webb, "DWB," Esquire, April 1999, p. 118).

The report was released, in part, to rebut denials by various police agencies of the existence of racial profiling. There have been increasing complaints by minorities during this decade that police target them for traffic stops as drug couriers, circumstances bitterly called "driving while black" (See "New Jersey Police Profile Minorities as Drug Couriers," NewsBriefs, March-April 1999, p. 28). The ACLU report calls for police agencies to voluntarily document the race of motorists stopped to prevent racial profiling.

Eleven state legislatures have bills pending to require data collection on all traffic stops. In April, North Carolina became the first state to enact such a law. The police chiefs of San Jose and San Diego recently decided to collect such data (Paul Van Slambrouck, "Two cities tackle racial profiling," Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 1999; Maurice Possley, "Minority Drivers Feel Like Moving Targets," Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1999, p. 1; Editorial, "Traffic Stop Paperwork Must Be Easy for Officers to Fill Out," San Jose Mercury News, June 9, 1999).

A bill requiring that the U.S. Department of Justice collect all police agencies' racial and ethnic data on motorists involved in stops passed the House last year (H.R. 118, 104th Cong.), introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), but it was killed in Senate committee. On April 15, 1999, Conyers introduced a similar bill (H.R. 1443).


OKLAHOMA: The Oklahoma case stems from charges by Army Sgt. Rossano Gerald, who was held for 90 minutes while police searched his car (Gerald v. Oklahoma Department of Safety, CIV 676R). The search caused over a thousand dollars in damages. The commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, Bob Ricks, denied that the Highway Patrol uses a criterion of race for highway stops, searches or seizures ("Shed Some Light On `Racial Profiling'," Tulsa World, May 30, 1999).

MARYLAND: The Maryland case was recently settled (Wilkins v. Maryland State Police). Col. David Mitchell, superintendent of the Maryland State Police, says the numbers which led to the suit are much different today. In 1995, 17% of all stopped motorists were black, but 73.7% of motorists whose cars were searched were black. In 1998, the percentage of searched motorists who were black dropped to 43.8% (Gregory Kane, "Whether Black Motorists Are Targets Is No Simple Issue," Baltimore Sun, May 30, 1999).

CALIFORNIA: A suit was filed against the California Highway Patrol and the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement (Rodriguez v. California Highway Patrol). Curtis Rodriguez was stopped on June 6, 1998, for "having his headlights on and for `touching the line.'" Rodriguez had observed five other stops and had recorded two on video before being stopped. Each of the drivers he had observed were Hispanic (Raoul Mowatt, "Driving While Black Or Brown," San Jose Mercury News, June 4, 1999).

ILLINOIS: The Illinois case involves stops made by the State Police "Valkyrie" unit, formed in 1990, which is used specifically for drug interdiction (Peso Chavez et al. v. Illinois State Police). As part of a five year old lawsuit against Illinois State Police, the ACLU reports that between 1987 and 1997, 22.7% and 21% of vehicles stopped by State Police were driven by black and Hispanic drivers, respectively. During that time blacks made up 10.3% of highway travellers, while Hispanics comprised less than 3%. The state claims that the stops were made because of other indicators, such as out-of-state license plates. Cars from Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico, New York, and Texas are often stopped because they are from states in which a sizeable amount of the drugs in the U.S. are transported. They are also states with Hispanic populations much greater than most other states (Maurice Possley, "Report On Police Stops Adds To Fire," Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1999).

The ACLU argues that police employ the technique to take advantage of drug forfeiture laws that permit police to seize property even without a criminal conviction. Harvey Grossman, the ACLU's legal director, said, "It's the equivalent of traveling in a totalitarian state where you are routinely stopped for searches...It's like a tax for driving on the highway" (Associated Press, "ACLU: State Police Habitually Target Minority Motorists," Springfield (IL) State Journal-Register, April 5, 1999).

U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), 2426 RHOB, Washington, D.C. 20515, Tel: (202) 225-5126.

ACLU - 122 Maryland Ave., NE, Washington, DC 20002, Tel: (202) 544-1681, Fax: (202) 546-0738. The report of racial profiling is on-line: <>.

Attorney in Oklahoma suit - Joel L. Carson, ACLU of Oklahoma, 3555 NW 58th St., Suite 510, Oklahoma City, OK 73112

Attorney in Maryland suit - Deborah Jeon, 100 N. Liberty St., Centerville, MD 21617, Tel: (410) 758-1975.

Attorney in California suit - Jon Streeter, Keker & Van Nest, 710 Sansom St., San Francisco, CA 94111-1704, Tel: (415) 391-5400.

Harvey Grossman, attorney for plaintiffs in Illinois suit - American Civil Liberties Union, 180 N. Michigan St., Suite 2300, Chicago, IL 60601, Tel: (312) 201-9740 ext. 321, Fax: (312) 201-9760.