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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM EAGLE COUNTY, COLO.

Bryant Case Recalls Race Issue

Profiling claim against Sheriff's Dept. makes some wonder if Lakers star can get a fair trial.

August 01, 2003|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

AURORA, Colo. — When she first heard that Lakers star Kobe Bryant had been arrested in Eagle County, an uneasy feeling came over Jhenita Howard.

It had nothing to do with his celebrity or allegations of sexual assault; it had everything to do with Eagle County.

In May 1989, Howard, her sister and four young children had stood along Interstate 70 as Eagle County sheriff's deputies rifled through their car. The deputies scattered clothes, pried open a portable radio and even checked a thermos full of baby formula.

"They told us we fit the profile of drug smugglers because we had California license plates and because of the color of our skin," Howard, who is black, recalled this week from her home here. "We stood by the highway for an hour. I can remember the dust hitting us as cars sped past."

Finding nothing, the deputies left.

From 1988 through 1990, Eagle County deputies stopped 402 black and Latino drivers and passengers on suspicion of drug smuggling. Many of the motorists alleged that they had been coerced into consenting to searches, although none was ever arrested or ticketed for any drug offense.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action suit in Howard's name on behalf of the motorists, claiming that their civil rights had been violated.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said almost no whites were stopped during the same time period. In 1996, the county agreed to pay one of the largest settlements ever in a racial profiling case.

Not only were the plaintiffs awarded $800,000, but a federal judge ordered the Sheriff's Department to end its practice of using "racist" pretexts to stop drivers.

But to this day, the Sheriff's Department has never admitted violating motorists' constitutional rights.

The profiling case has ignited concerns among some here about whether Bryant can get a fair trial in this overwhelmingly white county, considering the Sheriff's Department's history.

"They didn't just cough up $800,000 because they were nice guys," said David Lane, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in explaining why he thinks the past behavior of the department toward minorities remains relevant today.

"If it turns out the investigation by the sheriff was less than professional, the defense can hearken back to the racial profiling case and say nothing has changed," Lane said. "In this [Bryant] case, you had a sheriff who took the radical action of bypassing the district attorney's office to get an arrest warrant. You can argue that they presume black men from California are criminals."

But others say the racial profiling case is ancient history. They point out that Sheriff A.J. Johnson, who ran things back then, is gone and that the department under his leadership does not reflect the current view of the 41,659 citizens of Eagle County -- of whom 142 are black.

"The Eagle County sheriff didn't pick out Kobe Bryant; he wasn't stopped on the road; they didn't pick the victim," said David Brougham, the attorney who represented the Sheriff's Department in the racial profiling case. "You've got the evidence, the affidavit and the statement of the victim here."

One of the 19 deputies named as a defendant in the profiling suit, Michael McWilliam, also took part in the investigation of Bryant after a woman at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera claimed he had raped her June 30. Bryant is free on $25,000 bail and is expected to appear in court for a hearing Wednesday.

In an effort to tackle drug-running along I-70, Eagle County in 1988 formed the High Country Drug Task Force. Sheriff's deputies received training from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Arizona and New Mexico highway patrols. The deputies were given 22 indicators to look for in making a stop -- including fast-food wrappers on the floor, air fresheners, tinted windows and out-of-state license plates. Especially those from California. According to witnesses, the deputies often stood along the road or sat in cars with binoculars, looking for out-of-state plates and minority drivers.

When motorists asked why they were being stopped, the deputies often responded that they had been weaving or had failed to signal a lane change. Drivers were sometimes bluntly told they fit a drug profile because of their race and were asked if they would allow a vehicle search, lawyers said.

Lane said drivers were coerced into searches because deputies implied that if they didn't agree, they could end up in jail. Cars would then be taken apart: floorboards lifted, vents removed, trunks unloaded and suitcases unpacked. All the while, drivers and passengers stood along the highway watching.

In dozens of affidavits, drivers involved in the class-action suit had offered details on how they were treated.

Michael Kavanaugh of Missouri said that deputies told him they were stopping everyone with out-of-state plates. Court papers did not identify him by race.

"It was made very clear that if I refused [a search], we would be arrested and the car searched anyway," he testified.

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