Driving While Black: What it is and Why it’s Important

Almost every African-American or Latino can tell a story about being pulled over by the police for no apparent reason other than the color of his or her skin, especially if he or she happened to be driving in the "wrong place" at the "wrong time" or even driving the "wrong car." Victims of these racially motivated traffic stops rarely receive a traffic ticket or are found guilty of any violation of the law. It’s a practice called Driving While Black and it is emerging as a seminal civil rights issue.

O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden has been pulled over many times. Actors Wesley Snipes and Blair Underwood and athletes Joe Morgan and Al Joyner have also been stopped for "DWB."

 Darden now a Law Professor at Southwestern University spoke of being stopped on countless occasions since the age of 16. "After each of these stops I would ask myself, 'Why? Why was I stopped?' After each of these stops I reflected on the speed and manner in which I drove my vehicle. 'Was I speeding? No. Was I following too closely the vehicle in front of me? No. An unsafe lane chance, perhaps? No. Couldn't be.' Had that been the case, the officer would surely have written me a ticket. Most often, there was no 'good' reason for stopping me. Only the wrong reason. I was the wrong color."

While anecdotal evidence like Darden’s is plentiful, few formal studies of racially motivated traffic stops have been done. One of the few, an ACLU study in Maryland, revealed an alarming disparity in motorist stops and searches. Although African American drivers were 72% of those pulled over, they represented only 14% of drivers.

The ACLU -- both nationally and in Michigan — has made eradicating the DWB phenomenon a high priority, including the establishment of a national toll-free hot line for DWB victims: 1-877-6-PROFILE.

In April, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would mandate a study on racial profiling of motorists by the U.S. Department of Justice. That bill passed on voice vote in the House and is awaiting action by the Senate.

The U.S. Supreme Court established an open season on motorists in 1996 when it ruled that police could use any traffic offense as an excuse to pull a car over. This roadside detention may then be used as a pretext for searching the car and its occupants. In Michigan, as in most states, the vehicle code is a voluminous detailing of driving regulations, from the required depth of tire tread to the distance over which a driver must signal before turning. Virtually every driver will violate the vehicle code in some way during a short drive. These relatively minor offenses must necessarily be enforced on a selective basis and no other area of policing involves a greater use of officer discretion.

Some of these pretextual stops lead to arrests for drug possession or other crimes and it may be hard to feel sorry for someone caught with contraband who complains about the way he was apprehended. But we should certainly be concerned about all the law-abiding Americans who are stopped on our roads every day so that a few guilty people can be found. When they disproportionately visit these stops upon people of color, this practice violates the constitutional principal of equal justice under the law in a most fundamental way.

Ironically, even if it were permissible, racial profiling is an ineffective law enforcement technique. An ACLU study of traffic stops along a Maryland freeway showed that police searches uncovered contraband from African-American and white motorists at about the same rate — 28.4% in searches of blacks and 28.8% in searches of whites.

For most Michigan residents, their most frequent interaction — often their only interaction — with police officers involves minor traffic violations. These encounters heavily influence lasting perceptions of law enforcement. When decisions about enforcing traffic laws appear to be based on race, confidence in law enforcement erodes. For many years, the ACLU urged police departments across the nation to increase their effectiveness through community-based policing strategies. Now that these strategies are in place in many areas, they start with two strikes against them because of the perception that race plays a role in who gets stopped by the police.

It is to the benefit of all Americans, not just minority citizens, that the unjust and unfair practice of racial profiling of motorists be brought to a swift and permanent end.

Click Here for an overview of the National ACLU's policy on Racial Profiling.

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