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He Says the Police Lacked License : Jurisprudence: Edward Lawson was the focus of a Supreme Court ruling that anyone can walk anywhere, at any time, and not have to identify himself to police. A decade later, he's arguing a similar case after an arrest.


BEVERLY HILLS — For Edward Lawson, it was the same old story.

On Monday, as Los Angeles counted down toward the Oscars, Lawson went to visit a business associate in Beverly Hills. A few hours later, the tall African-American was in police custody, charged with a trio of misdemeanors, including failure to produce a driver's license on command.

Ironically, it was just a decade ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person, even one like Lawson who wears his hair in dreadlocks, has the right to walk peacefully through any neighborhood he or she chooses, without having to produce identification or explain his or her presence to police. That landmark case bears the name of Edward Lawson, the same man who was arrested last week on a similar charge.

Lawson, 46, who lives in Venice and still has dreadlocks, believes he was arrested by Beverly Hills police simply because he is black. "There are always doubts in an intelligent mind," he says, "but it's not like this hasn't happened to me before."

Beverly Hills police deny the arrest was racially motivated.

But in Lawson's view, nothing much has changed since the mid-1970s when his habit of taking long nighttime walks in predominantly white sections of San Diego and Chula Vista led to his being arrested 15 times. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and others, "The Walkman," as the press dubbed him, successfully challenged the existing California law that allowed police to arrest anyone who did nothing more than fail or refuse to produce identification or explain his presence in a community where he didn't seem to belong.

But the fact that Lawson won before the Supreme Court didn't keep him from spending almost three days this week in jail. (He was released on his own recognizance Wednesday and will be arraigned April 14.)

Granted, the current charges are slightly different from those that led to his earlier arrests--after all, thanks to Lawson, innocent pedestrians don't have to produce identification for the police. But Beverly Hills police allege that Lawson broke the motor vehicle code by failing to produce a driver's license on command, which is required by law, and by giving false information to a police officer. Police also charge him with obstructing and delaying a police investigation, a misdemeanor.

Lawson denies all three charges and says what happened to him last week is just another variation on the old, old story of racial fear and prejudice.

As anyone in the black community can tell you, says Lawson, when police see a black man in a mostly white neighborhood, no matter what he's doing, they assume the worst and often behave without regard for individual rights. It happens all the time, he says. It certainly happens to him. Lawson says he is a police magnet, despite the fact that he is a clean-living guy who has never been arrested, before this week, for anything but violations of the overturned California ID law.

As Lawson puts it, "I've been stopped by the police more times than any man on the face of the Earth." The dreadlocks, he concedes, do tend to make things worse. "That always exacerbates whatever the problem might have been otherwise."

The police and Lawson differ in their accounts of what happened Monday morning.

But both agree it happened in famously affluent, overwhelmingly white Beverly Hills, where Lawson says he had driven for a meeting at the apartment of his friend and business associate, John Longenecker. A filmmaker and associate with Lawson in various media projects, Longenecker won an Academy Award in 1970 as producer and co-writer of the best live action short subject, "The Resurrection of Broncho Billy."

Lawson says he was trying to park in front of Longenecker's Elm Street apartment building, "when--boom!--a police car from Beverly Hills showed up." Lawson and the police don't agree on much from that point on. According to Lawson, he was asked if he lived in the area. Lawson said he didn't understand immediately how that was any of the officer's business. Lawson says he was asked if he had identification. He responded by asking why he was being stopped.

Lawson says the police officer told him a woman had told police that someone was driving slowly past a nearby school in a car that matched the description of Lawson's, a 1968 Cadillac El Dorado currently painted primer gray. Lawson says he remembers wondering why the police would respond to a report of someone driving slowly in a posted school zone equipped with two speed bumps. He thought: That's legal, not illegal, right?

Lawson was asked to get out of the car, he says, and as soon as he did so, he put his hands over his head and began explaining to the police officers (there were four officers on the scene before the incident was over) that he believed he was under arrest. He said he would not say anything more as was his right as a result of the Miranda decision.

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