Racial Profiling

Just this past April, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced the results of a study conducted on racial profiling by the U.S. Department of Justice. The conclusion: "An alarming racial disparity in the rate at which motorists are searched by local law enforcement" (ACLU website, 2007). These results clearly show the significant differences in how drivers are treated when police stop their vehicle. According to the study, three times the number of blacks and Hispanics are apt to be searched during such a stop, blacks are two times as apt to be placed under arrest and almost four times to be threatened or actually suffer force in such law enforcement activities. The Department of Justice states that such results are not necessarily due to racial bias. Yet, if this is not the case, then why do such statistics exist? The question remained unanswered. As Harris states in his book on this subject, "Racial profiling is based not on real evidence but on distorted ideas about crime and an overly narrow view of how to attack it" (2002, p. 15). Nor does racial profiling only exist on city streets and highways: It occurs in all facets of life, from finding some place to live to seeking employment to traveling on a vacation.

In 1999, the Oxford American Dictionary for the first time defined racial profiling as "an alleged police policy of stopping and searching vehicles by people from particular racial groups." Since then, many agree that this terminology needs to be defined as a wider problem than driving. It can even occur when someone is walking down the street and others wonder why this person is in the neighborhood, since he/she could not possibly afford to live there. Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law School defines racial profiling as "using race as a factor in deciding whom to place under suspicion and/or surveillance." It takes place whenever law enforcement frequently utilize race as a negative sign that, in conjunction with other signs, causes the police to be suspicious."

Prior to the terror attacks on September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the problem of racial profiling was mostly centered on individuals on the streets and traffic stops directed toward black and Hispanic men. However, as Arabs and Middle Easterners increasingly were detained for questioning about possible terrorist affiliation or intelligence information, racial profiling became a much greater issue. The issue developed into a civil rights vs. national security concern. (Holbert & Rose, 2004, p.8). Although there has been a great deal of prejudice and profiling against the Arab-Americans and other similar groups, this present paper deals primarily with racial profiling as it pertains to violating individuals' rights on the streets and in vehicles.

The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution includes two major entries to protect citizens against racial profiling: equality and due process. The amendment declares, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. To focus on a specific group of individuals because of race violates equal protection: The law cannot protect a group of people that is being singled out for investigation. In addition, the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause prohibits the government from making classificaitons based on race, sex, age, illegitimacy, wealth or any other characteristic and guarantees that all people are treated the same.

However, states Holbert & Rose (2004, p. 168), profiling is a subject on which case law and legal interpretations are commonly changing. The Terry v Ohio case in 1968 Terry v. Ohio expanded the right of police officers to "stop and frisk" individuals whom they deem to be suspicious, when there was a threat of real danger. However, since then, case after case in lower courts have eliminated the requirement of danger and instead looked at whehter all suspects in a particular category of cimres should be considered dangerous (Harris, 2002, 41).

In 1990, the courts held that a law enforcement officer who initailly detained a motorist for a traffic violation could investigate matters not related to the traffic violation (United States v. Cummins). During a routine traffic stop, for instance, the officer may request a driver's license and vehicle number, run a computer check and issue a citation. In Ohio v. Robinette (1996), the courts stated several factors to justify reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was possible: 1) the driver cannot produce a driver's license; 2) the driver does not have any identification at all; 3) the individuals in the car are carrying large amounts of money; 4) the vehicle has been rented to an unknown third party; 5) those in the vehicle maintain their total ignorance about what the vehicle is carrying; and 6) the individuals in the vehicle claim they do not have a key to unlock the carrying area, when the officer has a clear view of a key that would fit that area.

Also in 1996, Whren v. United States is considered highly damaging to minorities (ibid, pgs. 171-172). While patrolling a high-drug area, plainsclothes police officers observed a truck at a stop sign for an unually long time. The truck then turned without signaling and sped off at an "unreasonable" speed. The police stopped the vehicle, presumably to warn about traffic violations. When approaching the truck, officers saw plastic crack bags in the passenger's hands. The lawyers moved to remove the evidence because the officers did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe the individuals were engaged in illegal drug dealing. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the ruling that regardless whether a police officer subjectively believes the vehicle's occupants may be engaging in some illegal behavior, a traffic stop is permissible as long as a reasonable officer in the same circumstances could have stopped the car for the suspected traffic violation. Also, temporary detention of the motorist upon probable cause of violation of a traffic law does not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures, even if a reasonable officer woud not have stopped the motorist absent some additional law enforcement objective.

The Supreme Court extended this in 2000 with Illinois v. Wardlow that endorsed nationally that "Headlong flight -- wherever it occurs -- is the consummate act of evation." or, running at the sight of an officer creates enough reasonable suspicion to warrant a stop. "While neither location nor evasion would be enough for reasonable suspicion alone, together they supported the officers's 'commonsense judgments." In other words, adds Harris (2002, p. 47), this confers "the Supreme Court's blessing on a tactic that boils down to racial profiling. In short Wardlow declares open season in the inner city."

Because of ideosyncracies in the laws, racial profiling has continued. For example, according to New York City Police Department statistics, the police "stopped and frisked" over 500,000 people in 2006. Over 50% of those stopped were black; blacks and Latinos consisted of over 80% of individuals stopped and searched. In 2002, less than 100,000 New Yorkers were stopped on the city's streets by police; in four years the number of searches has increased fivefold (Mathis, 2007, A4).

Situations as that experienced by Donald Boyd, a 62-year-old African-American in Chicago who was a former corrections officer and is presently a regional vice president for the U.S. Department of Housing and Development, are unfortunately common across the United States. Police officers stopped Boyd when he was walking down the street and asked if he had been sold anything. He responded that nothing was sold to him. The police officers wanted to search him. Wen he refused, he was cuffed and searched anyway. However, nothing was found, but he was charged with possession of a controlled substance. Ultimately, he was found innocent.

Apparently Boyd's arrest was part of a in a neighborhood roundup. After spending a night in jail, he appeared at a bond hearing and told he would have to post $5,000 bail. When found innocent, Boyd told Amnesty International USA:

They loaded 45 people into a van that was supposed to hold 32. They were all almost black or Latino....They shouted obscenities at us through the hole.... Several people, including myself, were assaulted by deputies for supposedly not complying with what they said.... I live in a community that has been destroyed with crime and drugs.... I am a citizen and I deserve my rights... They did not give me a Miranda. They did not tell me I had rights.

As a result of such situations as Boyd's, some cities are passing anti-racial profiling ordnances. For example, the City of Los Angeles became alarmed that the Police Department did not sustain any of the 850 complaints of racial profiling received during the past four years, the Police Commission approved guidelines aimed at ensuring investigations are more thorough (2007, B4). The new protocols require that the officer must tell investigators the reason why…