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A New Drive for Justice

Complaints of minority motorists who say they are unfairly subject to traffic stops have long fallen on deaf ears, but calls to address the problem are growing.


On his way to see a doctor about a block from where he works in Beverly Hills, Patrick Earthly said he suddenly found himself confronted by two police officers with their guns drawn, asking what he was doing in the area.

Los Angeles police stopped and handcuffed former Los Angeles Lakers and UCLA basketball star Jamaal Wilkes, allegedly because his license plate tags were about to expire.

A prominent Latino attorney was stopped in what had been an all-white cul de sac in Burbank before he moved there. He said the officers told him: "We haven't seen you around here before."

O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden says he has been "stopped and confronted by gun-toting officers demanding that I place my hands on the steering wheel or exit my vehicle and lie on the ground."

Assemblyman Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) was headed out to celebrate with his fiancee after a hard-fought primary election victory in June when Beverly Hills police pulled him over without, he said, giving him any plausible reason for the stop.

A Beverly Hills police spokesman later said Murray was stopped because his car was missing a front license plate, but Murray said the officer never looked at the front of his car during the stop.

In none of these cases were the drivers ticketed. In some, officers refused to give a reason for the stop or became angry when asked for one, the drivers said.

Such incidents are repeated hundreds of times daily across the country, civil liberties lawyers say, and the common thread running through these stops is that the drivers are African American or Latino.

The only crime they have committed, these lawyers cynically suggest, is "DWB"--Driving While Black. Because so many Latinos report similar experiences, DWB has been expanded to mean Driving While Black or Brown.

"It is a fact that white officers stop blacks for no reason," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Leonard Ross, president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, an organization of African American officers. "The problem is that you can't prove it because the officer is going to fabricate probable cause."

Cmdr. David Kalish, spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, responded that it is "unfortunate that Mr. Ross would make such an inflammatory statement when there is no evidence that this phenomenon occurs.

"It is important to note that the city of Los Angeles is extremely diverse and so is its Police Department. Over 50% of the officers are minority or female. In my 23 years on the department, I've never observed any officer making traffic stops based on race."

Officers always say they make stops for probable cause, Ross said, and that "creative" officers can come up with one.

How can a driver say he wasn't lane straddling? he asked. "Probable cause for a traffic stop could be a vehicle code violation, speed, traffic signals, seat belts."

Mexican American comedian Paul Rodriguez used to joke: "I grew up in a neighborhood where a primer spot was probable cause."

But it is no joke to law-abiding black and brown drivers who say they are stopped for no reason other than their race.

Court Opinion Cites Widespread Problem

"We do not know exactly how often this happens to African American men and women who are not celebrities and whose brushes with the police are not deemed newsworthy," federal Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in a unanimous 1996 opinion upholding a judgment against two Santa Monica police officers who arrested two black men at gunpoint. "It is clear, however, that African Americans are stopped by the police in disproportionate numbers."

Inglewood High School teacher Anthony Clark, 39, said he and his son Anthony, 19, have been stopped so many times that "there is no way I can give you a number."

"Any time you see a police car behind you, if you are a black youth, you're going to get stopped," he said. "No doubt about it."

Because he and his son have been stopped so many times, Clark's Jeep now sports a custom-made license plate holder reading: "D.W.B. (Driving While Black) Is Not Illegal!"

Former Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams told a criminal justice symposium in Virginia on Tuesday that he was pulled over on his way home late one night when he was a Philadelphia police captain. The officer who pulled him over and demanded to see his driver's license could give no reason for stopping him, Williams said.

The difficulty in establishing that police officers make racially based traffic stops is that the evidence, though abundant, is practically all anecdotal, critics of the alleged practice say.

Perhaps the best support for the contention that officers stop motorists based on race comes from data collected in 1996 along Interstate 95 north of Baltimore.

Although African Americans were only 17% of the drivers observed violating traffic laws on that portion of the highway, they were nearly 73% of those stopped.

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