Obama Appellate Bench Nominee Behind ‘Driving While Black’ Case
WASHINGTON — A federal judge President Barack Obama wants to promote to the appellate bench successfully sued the Maryland State Police for racial profiling after his family was pulled over and searched for drugs while driving back from a funeral.
The 1992 search has been at the center of two decades of litigation that’s become known as the “driving while black” case. U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins has shown an unyielding effort to combat racial profiling in drug stops through three subsequent lawsuits, the final one ultimately decided just this year.
Wilkins, whom Obama nominated Tuesday to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has said his family’s roadside detention for an eventual search by a drug-sniffing dog was a “humiliating and degrading experience” and he’s been determined to use the courts to prevent it from happening to others.
The Wilkins stop came on May 8, 1992, during an all-night road trip home from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. His cousin Scott El-Amin was driving in their rented Cadillac, and his uncle and his uncle’s wife were also in the car. Wilkins has said they were hurrying because they were all due at work in the morning — Wilkins, then a public defender in Washington, had a court appearance scheduled.
The family was stopped by a trooper who said they were going 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, and El-Amin was cited for speeding. They declined the trooper’s request to search their car and were told as a consequence they would have to wait for a canine search. As Wilkins tells it, the officer mentioned something about “problems with rental cars coming up and down the highway with drugs.”
Wilkins said he identified himself as a public defender and cited Supreme Court precedent that they could not be held for a dog search without a reasonable suspicion they were carrying drugs. But Wilkins said the family was made to stand in the rain while the German shepherd sniffed over the car and found nothing, while the delay caused him to miss his court appearance, according to an account he provided at a 2009 world conference on racism held at the United Nations in Switzerland.
“It is hard to describe the frustration and pain you feel when people presume you to be guilty for no good reason and you know that you are innocent,” Wilkins said in remarks prepared for delivery at the conference.
Wilkins noted the stop came the same week as the Los Angeles riots in response to the police beating of Rodney King. “This was a time when black people all over the United States were asking themselves whether the country was making tangible progress in fighting racial discrimination and whether the country’s vaunted legal system was truly equipped and able to right these wrongs. We decided to take legal action,” he said.
Wilkins said they uncovered a Maryland State Police criminal intelligence report that notified troopers of crack cocaine coming through the mountainous region of western Maryland, with traffickers who were predominantly black and traveling early in the morning or late at night in rental cars with Virginia registration.
“Well, we fit the profile to a tee,” Wilkins said. “We were traveling on I-68, early in the morning, in a Virginia rental car. And, my cousin and I, the front seat passengers, were young black males. The only problem was that we were not dangerous, armed drug traffickers. It should not be suspicious to travel on the highway early in the morning in a Virginia rental car. And it should not be suspicious to be black.”
Their suit was settled was settled in 1995. The Maryland State Police paid $50,000 to the four family members, $46,000 in attorney fees and banned racial profiling in drug stops. It required record keeping for all traffic stops with a narcotics dog, monitoring by a federal judge, training for troopers on the new policy and discipline for those who violated it.
Wilkins said his family began to monitor Maryland State Police data and immediately saw a disturbing trend — 70-75 percent of those searched on Interstate 95 were black, even though only blacks made up only 17 percent of drivers traveling there. Wilkins said they filed another suit — this time a class action on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and all minority motorists targeted for stops. After several years of negotiation, a second settlement was reached in 2003 requiring enhanced trooper training, a new process to handle racial profiling complaints and more oversight of the agency’s handling of it.
Wilkins said although he believed both settlements resulted in improvements, the agency’s own data continued to show vast disparities in the number of stops and searches of minority motorists and that complaints of racial profiling were not being taken seriously. Police investigations found no merit in any of almost 100 complaints of racial profiling that were filed.
Maryland’s highest court ruled in January that the police must release the investigation files, over the state’s objection that the documents were personnel records that were exempt from public disclosure. The department was able to black out officers’ names to protect their identity.
Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley said the agency maintains that it doesn’t engage in racial profiling. He said they have implemented all the requirements of the court settlement and have gone further, including by distributing brochures at each traffic stop explaining the complaint process and installing cameras in patrol vehicles that are monitored by supervisors.
“We maintain a very strong policy against using race against any police action,” Shipley said. And he added that the agency congratulates Wilkins on his nomination and wishes him all the best.
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