The ACLU of Southern California filed a federal lawsuit today seeking to block the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) from the practice of "racial profiling," in which officers stop and search nonwhite motorists based on the color of their skin. The case sheds further light on this discriminatory practice, which violates the basic guarantees of liberty and equality firmly embedded in the U.S. Constitution and our nation's civil rights laws.
The ACLU brought the suit on behalf of three black and two Latino men who, within the past year, were subjected to five separate encounters with the LAPD as they drove to work or to their homes.
The suit recounts how the LAPD followed, stopped, and detained each of these men, for no valid reason. "The stated grounds for the stops were trumped-up and phony," said Ramona Ripston, the ACLU's Executive Director. "In reality, they committed no offense but were stopped for 'driving while black or brown,' or 'DWB'. There is no way in the world what happened to them would have occurred if they were white."
Alberto Lovato, a professional musician and preschool teacher, was followed for over two miles by the LAPD, ordered out of his truck at gun point, forced to lie face down on the ground, handcuffed, searched, and accused of being a gang member, all before the police looked at his driver's license and vehicle registration -- or even asked for them.
The experiences of Carlos Gonzalez, a public school math teacher, and Timothy Campbell, a licensed realtor and building contractor, were strikingly similar. In both cases, LAPD officers made U-turns to follow Gonzalez and Campbell, and both were ordered out of their vehicles by police officers, Campbell at gunpoint. Gonzalez and Campbell were searched and told that they had been stopped because the police suspected that they had stolen their cars. Twenty minutes passed before the police asked either Gonzalez or Campbell for their driver's licenses and registration, during which time Gonzalez was handcuffed. In both instances, the police concocted false after-the-fact stories that Gonzalez and Campbell had been speeding.
David Askew, an actor, was followed by LAPD on a deserted street after midnight. He was stopped, handcuffed, and accused by officers, whose hands were primed on their holstered guns, of being a dangerous criminal suspect. Askew contested the speeding ticket the police finally issued, and it was thrown out of court.
Tonye Allen, a freelance photographer, was trailed for at least a half a mile in the early hours of the morning. He shifted lanes several times, believing that police officers wanted to pass him. Yet the police continued to follow him, shifting lanes each time Allen did. Ultimately, Allen was stopped and told that he had been impeding traffic, even though there were no other vehicles on the road except for the police car. Allen's ticket for driving too slowly was also voided by the traffic court.
"What these men have endured at the hands of their police is, sadly, a daily reality for motorists of color in Los Angeles," said ACLU Staff Attorney Catherine Lhamon. "Through this lawsuit, these men seek to eradicate the injustice of racial profiling by the police and to end the terror persons of color feel when stopped and scrutinized'often at gunpoint and in handcuffs'for no valid reason."
Last year, Governor Gray Davis vetoed a bill that received strong bipartisan support in the legislature, which would have required law enforcement agencies in California to collect and maintain data on the race or ethnicity of drivers who are stopped by the police. At least seventy municipalities throughout California have agreed voluntarily to gather and keep this data. Los Angeles has refused to take even this first step -- despite clear evidence of a problem. In 1999, the ACLU instituted a statewide DWB hotline (1-877-DWB-STOP) and discovered that an overwhelming number of cases were generated in Southern California.
'The suit filed today seeks justice for five men who were victimized by the very officers sworn to protect and serve them, solely on the basis of their skin color. A police department cannot function effectively if it does not have the trust of the community that it serves," said Michael Small, the ACLU's Chief Counsel. "Here, in Los Angeles, that trust has been severely eroded in recent months in the wake of an unprecedented police corruption scandal that has seen revelations that the LAPD fabricated evidence and framed individuals for crimes that they did not commit. What happened to Carlos Gonzalez, Tonye Allen, David Askew, Timothy Campbell, and Alberto Lovato is further evidence of a police department that has utter disregard and even contempt for civil rights and civil liberties."