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"Driving While Black," Motorists Sue States, Claiming Racist Police Practices


May-June 1998

On the New Jersey Turnpike on April 23, police officers fired their guns into a van of young minority men during a traffic stop, prompting renewed protests alleging racist law enforcement (Dore Carroll, "Sharpton Leads Turnpike Protest," Home News Tribune (East Brunswick), May 17, 1998, p. A1; Associated Press, "Hundreds Protest Alleged Racial Profiling," May 17, 1998; Associated Press, "Witnesses: Van Moving Slowly At Time Troopers Opened Fire," Bucks County Courier (Levittown, PA), May 10, 1998 p. A2)

Police allegedly pulled the van, containing three black men and one Hispanic man, to the shoulder of the turnpike because it was speeding. As the two officers approached, the vehicle went into reverse, knocking one of the policemen over. His partner fired two shots into the vehicle. The van then slid across traffic lanes, hitting another car, and slowly began backing towards the officers, according to witnesses. At this point, the officers fired nine more shots at the men in the van who were found to be unarmed.

Three of the van's passengers are suing the police in civil court. Critics question the veracity of the speeding claim used to stop the van and whether the officers had reason to fire their weapons. On May 16, Reverend Al Sharpton led a motorcade of 500 protestors to the site of the shooting.

A poll conducted by the Star-Ledger after the shooting found that 72% of the African Americans polled felt that state troopers do not treat drivers of different races, ages and gender equally. In contrast, 61% of white respondents felt that troopers treat all races the same (Bill Gannon, "Races Split on Rating Troopers," Star-Ledger (Newark), May 17, 1998, p. A1).

In response to the incident, on June 15 New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (R) said that all 245 state police vehicles that patrol the New Jersey Turnpike will be equipped with video cameras. Such a move is "very important for law enforcement and public confidence," Whitman said, and would provide "noncontrovertible evidence of what happens when a police stop is made" (David M. Herszenhorn, "After Shooting, New Jersey to Put Cameras in State Police Cars," New York Times, June 16, 1998, p. A35).


In Maryland, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action suit charging state troopers with pulling over a disproportionately high percentage of African American motorists on Interstate 95 to search for drugs (Paul W. Valentine, "ACLU Files Suit Against Md. Police," Washington Post, June 5, 1998, p. B1).

Eleven black drivers involved in the suit told reporters at an ACLU news conference that they suffered deep humiliation when officers pulled them over on Maryland roads. In each case, officers searched their cars and found nothing.

ACLU attorneys had successfully sued the Maryland State Police in 1994, and said that discrimination in traffic stops by police officers is a nationwide problem. The phenomenon has earned the name "DWB" or "Driving While Black." Similar lawsuits have been brought in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Indiana (see "Settlement in Pennslyvania Traffic Stop Suit," NewsBriefs, November 1994; "Watergate Veteran Hired to Represent Florida Sheriff's Department," NewsBriefs, September-October 1994; "ACLU Files Suit Against Illinois State Police," NewsBriefs, September-October 1994).


U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) proposed a bill that would require the Justice Department to collect records of the race of the person pulled over on traffic stops. The bill passed the House of Representatives but has stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee (Robert L. Jackson, "Push Against Traffic Stop Bias Is Arrested," Los Angeles Times (Washington Times), June 1, 1998, p. A7).

The National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO), which represents 4,000 police labor organizations, lobbied against the bill. They argued that it would inconvenience police officers and that there is no need for the study.

The Justice Department supported Conyers' bill, saying that it would make it easier to find out whether traffic stops are race-based.

Maryland ACLU - 100 N. Liberty St., Centreville, MD 21617, Tel: (410) 758-1975, Fax: (410) 758-1977.

Rep. John Conyers - 2426 RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-5126, Fax: (202) 225-0072, E-mail: <>.

NAPO - 750 1st Street, NE, Suite 920, Washington, DC 20002, Tel: (202) 842-4420, Fax: (202) 842-4396.