LOS ANGELES - Civil rights groups today heralded the introduction of AB 788 as a significant new piece of legislation that will move California forward in its effort to curb the pernicious practice of racial profiling in traffic stops, an issue that persists throughout California.

The bill was introduced by two Southern California Assemblymembers, Marco Firebaugh, of the South Gate area, and Jerome Horton, of Inglewood.

"We are one of the most diverse states in the nation," said Robert Chang, American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California board member, "yet every day, Californians suffer the effects of racially biased policing. It is hypocritical for a state that has outlawed the use of race in the context of public education, employment, and contracting to sit quietly and allow the use of race by police for traffic stops and searches.

"Unfortunately," said Chang, "racial profiling in California is practiced in various forms against many communities, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Islanders. Police departments in Orange County, to cite an example that has come to light recently, have targeted Latino residents, threatening to investigate their citizenship status. At the ACLU of Southern California, we've had reports that Asian Pacific Islanders in the vicinity of UC Irvine are frequently subjected to race-based traffic stops. The idea that race-based policing is necessary to protect public safety ignores that African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Islanders are also members of the public. And members of our communities aren't feeling very safe because of racial profiling. If the state does not require mandatory data collection as a necessary step in ending this practice, then it is effectively saying that African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Islanders are second class members of this state who do not deserve full protection and respect. We must come together to end this divisive practice."

AB 788 tackles the problem from several angles.

AB 788:

' Requires statewide data collection in traffic stops for a period for at least five years, with yearly reporting, a 5-yr. statewide report, and data standards that include the race of the motorist, the reason for the stop, whether a search was conducted, whether drugs or other evidence of illegal activity was found, and whether a citation was issued.

' Sets new data standards for local law enforcement agencies that use state funds to collect data voluntarily, including requiring that they collect data on the items outlined above.

' Creates a strong new definition of racial profiling, clarifying that race may not be used "in any fashion" or "to any degree" in determining who is stopped, except in the case of a specific suspect description.

' Creates an incentive for law enforcement officers and agencies to comply with the racial profiling prohibition by establishing a cause of action for individuals who experience racial profiling.

Elizabeth Guillen, Legislative Counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), emphasized that the data collection provision of the bill, a provision that proved controversial in last year's racial profiling bill, is especially important.

"Without the right data," said Guillen, " it is impossible to track, monitor, or prove discrimination by the police. Statewide mandatory data collection remains absolutely critical. Nobody should be misled into believing that the voluntary data collection efforts of a handful of agencies is going to solve the problem."

While a small percentage of the state's law enforcement agencies collect data, fewer than 3% include the information civil rights groups see as a necessary baseline for meaningful analysis: the race of the motorist stopped, the reason for the stop, whether a search was conducted whether drugs or other evidence of illegal activity was found, and whether a citation was issued.

Another key provision of the bill is the way in which it defines racial profiling:

"...'racial profiling' for the purposes of this section is the consideration in any fashion and to any degree the race or national or ethnic origin of drivers or passengers in deciding which vehicles to subject to any motor vehicle stop or in deciding upon the scope or substance of any enforcement action or procedure in connection with or during the course of a motor vehicle stop."

"The definition of racial profiling is strong and clear," said Victor Narro, Director of the Workers' Rights Project of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "It will help police departments conduct more effective training, and it provides people of color the unequivocal assurance that the State of California does not tolerate the racist enforcement of traffic laws."

The American Civil Liberties Union is working in coalition with civil rights groups throughout the state, including CHIRLA, NAACP chapters, the United Farm Workers, MALDEF, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, the Asian Law Caucus, SEIU, and numerous other organizations to pass the bill.