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Joe Morgan's Suit Protests 'Profile of Drug Dealer' That Led to Arrest : Civil rights: The former baseball star says he was unfairly targeted by police and detained at LAX because he is black. A second trial on his claim is set.

August 11, 1990|VICTOR MERINA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — As they scanned the flow of passengers at Los Angeles International Airport, police detective Clayton Searle and his fellow narcotics officer searched for the likely companion of the suspected drug courier who stood handcuffed nearby.

When Searle noticed a short, muscular black man walk toward them and then turn abruptly toward a bank of telephones, the plainclothes Los Angeles police detective moved in quickly to question him.

Within minutes, however, their words had turned into violence, and the two men toppled to the terminal floor where Searle handcuffed his suspect and pulled him to his feet. Placing his hand across the man's mouth, the officer then marched him away before a gathering crowd of gaping passers-by.

Only later did Searle and his partner from the Drug Enforcement Administration realize that the suspected drug courier they had arrested on that March day in 1988 was Joe Morgan, the former Cincinnati Reds second baseman who was inducted Monday into Major League baseball's Hall of Fame.

The 46-year-old Morgan, who is now an Oakland businessman and baseball broadcaster, is suing Searle and the city of Los Angeles in federal court, claiming that he was unfairly targeted because he is black and fit a certain "profile" that narcotics officers think a drug courier should look like.

"There's no doubt in our mind that the only reason they stopped Joe Morgan was because he is black and he was the first black who happened to come by," said William Barnes, one of the attorneys representing the former ballplayer.

The Morgan case also reflects a growing criticism of police use of the drug courier profile to stem the flow of drugs through airports.

"It's purely based on race or dress, not on whether you are involved in any drug activity," said Gary Trichter, a Houston defense lawyer and former police officer who specializes in such cases.

First developed in the 1970s, the drug courier profile was based on patterns of behavior believed to be used by those who use commercial airline flights to transport narcotics. Such suspicious behavior includes erratic movements, paying for tickets with cash, using an alias, boarding a long flight without luggage and staying briefly in distant cities known to be sources of narcotics.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government agents may stop and question airline passengers who look and act like drug couriers. But the court said brief detentions must be based on a person's behavior, not just on race or appearance.

"Profiles are important and we use them, but exactly how we use them or what the profile is I cannot tell you," said Los Angeles Police Department Cmdr. William Booth. "It is certainly not something based on any prejudice or racism. It's based on trying to protect the public." He said that, last year, 254 narcotics arrests were made at Los Angeles International Airport. Through Aug. 3 of this year, there have been 121 such arrests.

Frank Schults, chief of public affairs for the DEA in Washington, denied that his agency uses drug courier profiles.

"We have any number of investigative techniques and ways to identify people involved in moving drugs, but a profile is not one of them," he said.

Neither Booth nor Schults would comment on the Morgan lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial for a second time next month in Los Angeles. Morgan is seeking unspecified damages, claiming that his civil rights were violated.

Last April, a six-person federal jury rejected Morgan's case. But two months later, U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer set aside the verdict after ruling that she had failed to instruct jurors that Morgan had been illegally detained by police.

"There isn't any possible other conclusion but that the stop was illegal," the judge concluded.

Both Searle, a 20-year Police Department veteran, and William Woessner, a DEA agent who was subsequently dropped from the lawsuit, have denied that they did anything wrong.

"I wish that this hadn't happened," Searle said. "I wish (Morgan) luck now that I know who he is. I just hope I never see him again."

Morgan could not be reached for comment. But in court documents, he said that, on March 15, 1988, he was waiting at Los Angeles International Airport for a connecting flight to Tucson to attend a golf tournament and was innocently making a phone call when Searle suddenly grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.

Asked to identify himself, Morgan said he told the officer that his wallet was in an attache case about 40 feet away but that Searle refused to let him retrieve it. When a bystander--who would later testify for Morgan--recognized the former player and tried to intervene, both men claimed that Searle warned the man to stay away.

Minutes later, Morgan said, Searle grabbed him by the neck and they fell to the floor. Morgan said the officer then put a knee in his back, wrenched his arms behind him and handcuffed him.

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