By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
Etta and James Carter's nightmare began on their 40th wedding anniversary as they were driving on Interstate 95 returning from a trip to Florida. Stopped for "wobbly driving" by the police, the elderly couple was forced to stand by the side of the road while canine unit officers removed and searched every item from their vehicle. During the long wait, Mrs. Carter asked frequently to use the portable toilet inside the couples' SUV, but the police responded by threatening to place her in handcuffs. She eventually soiled herself. The ordeal took three hours, and the Carters had to repack their own car when it was over. No drugs or other contraband were found.
The Carters are African-American, and they were victims of Driving While Black, or DWB, a shameful phenomenon that not only affects the daily lives of people of color, but also gives us a horrifying glimpse into the heart of racial prejudice in Virginia and the rest of the nation.
The Carters are not the only victims of DWB. Elected officials, prominent athletes, lawyers, business leaders and their families are among those who have been hauled out of their cars in recent months and subjected to humiliating roadside searches by police solely because they were members of a minority group.
Race-based traffic stops turn one of the most ordinary and quintessentially American activities into an experience fraught with danger and risk. Because traffic stops can happen anywhere and anytime, millions of African-Americans alter their driving habits in such a way that would never occur to most white Americans. Some completely avoid places such as all-white suburbs, where they fear police harassment for looking "out of place." Some intentionally drive only bland cars or change the way they dress. Others who drive long distances even factor in extra time for traffic stops that seem inevitable.
The statistics are alarming. In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel videotaped traffic stops and discovered that 70 percent of the vehicles pulled aside on Interstate 95 were African-American motorists, even though they comprised less than 10 percent of the driver population. In Maryland, where 18 percent of all traffic violators were African-American, 70 percent of those who had their cars searched were African-American. On the New Jersey Turnpike, about 14 percent of the drivers were African-American, but they comprised 46 percent of those who were pulled over by police.
Despite these figures, law enforcement officials tend to deny the reality of racial profiling on our highways or argue without apology that making disproportionate numbers of traffic stops of African-Americans and other minorities is not discrimination, but rational law enforcement that targets those most likely to commit a crime.
They argue that profiling is a statistical illusion created by the fact that people who are poor are more likely to commit crimes and that a disproportionately high number of poor people are people of color. There is little doubt that these arguments are sometimes made by honest observers, but the list of victims of DWB includes Congressional representatives, middle class families, and even police officers, obliterating any pretense that profiling is anything other than race-based.
Widespread DWB practices undermine the legitimacy--and therefore, the effectiveness-- of our criminal justice system. Pretextual traffic stops fuel the belief that the police are not only unfair and biased, but untruthful as well. Each pretextual traffic staff involves an untruth, and both the officer and driver recognize this. The alleged traffic infraction is not the real reason that the officer has stopped the driver. This becomes obvious when the officer asks the driver whether he or she is carrying drugs or guns and seeks consent to search the car. If the stop was really about the enforcement of the traffic code, there would be no need for a search. Stopping a driver for a traffic offense when the officer's real purpose is drug interdiction is a lie - a legally sanctioned one, to be sure, but a lie nonetheless.
Advocates of racial justice have launched a nationwide campaign to end discriminatory police stops along our nations' highways. Lawsuits have already been filed in Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida and Oklahoma. Many civil rights groups support the passage of legislation at the state and federal level that would require police to keep detailed records of traffic stops, including the race and ethnicity of the person stopped.
Collecting and analyzing data on racial profiling in Virginia should be a high priority. But the General Assembly has been reluctant to address the issue, running scared from bills in both the 1999 and 2000 legislative sessions after police claimed that profiling could not possibly happen here. In a state with a long, documented history of race discrimination in employment, criminal justice and politics, it is hard to accept this claim -- especially when one considers the obvious self-interest of the source and the fact that even police admit that it is based solely on their impressions.
The City of Richmond Police Department boldly announced several months ago that it would conduct its own study of racial profiling. Representatives of the Department now claim to have collected some of the raw data, but not to have the funds to analyze it. Is this the real reason for not proceeding? Or did the preliminary data hint at figures so stark and sinister that city officials decided not to share it with the public?
For the citizens of Virginia, there is no downside to studying DWB. Perhaps a study, if conducted, will show that DWB does not exist in Virginia. Given the results of studies from other states along the I-95 corridor, that would be a surprise. Still, it would serve the purpose of quelling the storm brewing over this issue. However, if the study shows that DWB exists, we will have the basis for doing something about it.
Given what we know about the Driving While Black phenomenon, refusing to study it amounts to a kind of passive government cover up. No one enjoys being forced to visit the dark heart of racial prejudice, but Virginia's lawmakers must conduct a study of DWB before it settles in to become part of Virginia's shameful legacy of racial discrimination.