Driving While Black

Let me tell you about a recent case I had.

My client is a young black kid in college.  He’s never been in trouble before in his life. His dad is a successful businessman.

Being a good kid, he was allowed to borrow Dad’s expensive car to hang out with his friends. He did.

On the way home, he gets pulled over by a cop, who cites as the reason an “obscured license plate,” meaning it was covered in mud or something and the officer couldn’t read it. They’re allowed to stop to make sure it isn’t a false plate or something. (Actually, these days, cops can pull you over for just about anything, but that’s a topic for another day.)

My client is cooperative and polite.police car

The officer then says to my client that he wants to search the car. Thanks to a recent decision by a Republican-run Pennsylvania Supreme Court,*  you have no privacy rights in your car and the police can pretty much search whenever they want to. So my client, not wanting to cause a fuss, agrees. The officer finds a small amount of marijuana, left there by one of my client’s friends.

It should be noted that the officer detected no sign that my client was under the influence of marijuana — because he wasn’t. My client says he never smokes, and I have no reason to doubt that. Officers look for things like the smell of burnt marijuana, glassy eyes, and you know, the kind of way stoned people act. Had the officer thought there was any sign of that he would have taken my client in for a blood test and then, if there was a positive result, charged him with Driving Under the Influence.

So my client gets charged with Possession of a Small Amount of Marijuana.

He continues on his way home.

As he nears home, he gets pulled over again. This time, this new officer says he’s pulling him over because the windows were too harshly tinted. Same thing happens — he doesn’t suspect my client of having committed any crime but demands a search anyway, and finds a grinder that the first cop missed. Now my client gets charged with Possession of Drug Paraphernalia and Possession of Marijuana (for the few seeds found in the grinder).

Notice that the first cop never mentioned tinted windows and the second cop never mentioned an obscured license plate. Note as well that my client was never charged with the supposed reasons for the stops.

Now, for all my white friends: How often has this happened to you? How often are you pulled over for tinted windows or an obscured license plate or something else that is solely based on the officer’s opinion? A light out is an objective thing that makes sense for a traffic stop; how much tint is too much? How much mud is too much? Those kinds of things are judgment calls.

In my job as a defense attorney, I see those kinds of stops all the time, and almost always for young, dark-skinned men in expensive cars. In fact, as I have written about before, my Office Manager’s husband — a dark-skinned Hispanic businessman — gets pulled over probably once every two or three months for these kinds of reasons. He stands by and waits while the officer searches his car and always finds nothing and then he either gets a warning or a minor ticket that is hardly worth fighting over.

And many of my clients have similar stories, the worst of which are when the police find money and no other sign of criminal activity but keep the money because “it must have come from drugs!” Often, the cost of hiring an attorney to fight to get the money back is more than the amount of money taken, so ca-ching! Free money for the police fund. (That’s where a lot of those police tanks and other military gear comes from, you know.)

Now, are all police profiling black drivers? Oh, of course not. But when you see it happen as often as those of us in the criminal justice system see, you realize that there’s something going on here.

Once I was discussing a case in chambers with a judge who said that the police clearly knew what they were doing since she sees so many cases where drugs have been found during these searches. “That’s because you never hear about the stops where nothing is found,” I countered. “It looks like 100% of all searches are successful to you, because those are the only cases that come before you.” To her credit, she nodded, as if she had never considered that fact before.

And I think that’s where a lot of white people are — they don’t personally see it, so they think it doesn’t happen.

Now back to my case: There were two different DAs assigned to this case because they happened in two different jurisdictions, but I got them to talk to each other. They saw what was going on agreed to give my client probation without a verdict — he doesn’t plead guilty, and as long as he stays out of trouble and doesn’t test positive for any drugs (not a problem for him) the matter will eventually be dismissed and wiped from his record.

And boy, has he learned not to let those particular friends ride in his car any more.

 

*The good news is that thanks to some of these judges now being forced to resign due to various scandals, including one judge who is now in jail, a bunch of Democrats were elected to replace them. So this policy may change in the future.

4 thoughts on “Driving While Black

  1. What a travesty of justice! This is something many white folks who enjoy white priviledge will never understand or accept. Thanks for sharing this Mike! I have had so many students of color both in NJ and Colorado who complain all the time about these kinds of incidents. Maybe when Sanders is the president, he will make marijuana legal and crack down on petty incarcerations.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I worked for the prosecutor’s office as a law student intern, there was one cop in particular who made no bones about DWB. He would follow until there was some minor traffic infraction and then the fun would begin.

    In small towns, there is also “driving while poor.” My lily-white husband was a poor sleeper. Some nights he would go down to our business at 2 am and work while it was quiet. One night, as he turned into the alley behind our building, he got pulled over in his ratty old work van for “no license plate light” (the bulb was burned out). He was shirtless and unshaven. The young cop briskly asked for ‘papers’ and he handed her the neat packet.

    She tried and tried, but everything was there: license, registration, insurance, the works, all in a nice folder. She even commented that she’d never seen it better organized. She seemed perplexed.

    His reply, “Well, my wife is a lawyer.”

    Signal demeanor change. She admitted that she stopped him because he looked “shady.” She then apologized and told him to fix the light bulb on the license plate.

    As for me, I get profiled all the time. I drive a small white commercial van with no windows. I fit the drug interdiction threat profile. By the time I’m done with the typical cop, he feels like he has pulled over his mom. I’ve never even gotten a ticket (even one time when I really deserved it, but that’s another story) and I usually get an apology.

    Would either of these stories have ended the same way if we’d been a black couple?

    Terri

    Like

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