Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Aaron Patterson Racial Profiling case is finally set for trial - Case could set a precedent on the legality of "Pretext Stops"

Shortly after the Kansas Racial Profiling bill was signed into law, our office had the distinction of receiving and filing the first official complaint under the new statute. The case involved a gentleman by the name of Aaron Patterson.

Aaron Patterson's racial profiling claim was thoroughly investigated by the Kansas Human Rights commission and it was sustained in his favor. The KHRC issued a ruling that there was probable cause to believe that the Wichita Police Department had in fact racially profiled Mr. Patterson.
This created a firestorm: Prior to that ruling, the Wichita Police Department had investigated more than 40 racial Profiling complaints for that year and had exonerated the officers in all cases. In fact, the Wichita Police Department had never found for a citizen in a Racial Profiling case.

Later that week, the City Attorney held a press conference in his office to discuss the ruling. I had been tipped off that the press conference was going to happen so I took an early lunch and attended. The City attorney asserted that the ruling would not stand up to scrutiny because he believed that the law itself was unconstitutional. He cited the fact that while the law made profiling an 'unlawful act' it did not delineate what the sanctions should be for commission of the act. After the City's Press Conference ended, I held an additional Ad-Hoc press conference in the lobby of the City Attorney's office where I pointed out to the press the fact that the sanctions for commission of the act had been in our draft of the bill, but the legislators removed them in a last minute compromise with Law Enforcement - to include representatives of the Wichita Police Department.

Despite the City's protestations, the case continued. The Wichita Police Chief would later appear on the evening news and boldly state, "Aaron Patterson is lying". Strange and untrue rumors started floating around that Aaron had been visiting a crack house, that he was a criminal, and that he had been seen with a drug dealer. And the City went on to file two separate motions to dismiss the case, both of which were denied. and now finally, at long last Aaron Patterson will have his day in court!
Here's why YOU should care about this case:
Police Departments around the Country liberally utilize a practice referred to as a "pretext stop". this occurs when an Officer sees a vehicle that they decide they'd like to stop and search. They pull behind and follow the vehicle, sometimes for as much as 10 miles, until the driver commits a minor traffic infraction, then they pull them over and request to search the vehicle. The most frequent reasons given for the stop are:

1. Wide turn
2. Failure to signal a turn 100 feet from the corner
3. Tires crossing the center line

These reasons 'legitimize' the stop and they are also items that can not be disproven by the driver. However, just as the name implies, they are merely the 'pretext' to effectuate the stop - the decision to stop the vehicle was made before the infraction took place...

Most Police Departments will tell you (WPD included) that pretext stops are legal, and that the Supreme Court has upheld that fact. However, that is not quite true. The Supreme Court has upheld convictions for items found as a result of a pretext stop, but they have never ruled on the legality of the practice itself.

When we were drafting the language the went into the Kansas Racial Profiling bill, our specific intent was to define pretext stops as Racial Profiling. Our reasoning was simple: At the moment that an Officer decides that he or she wants to stop and search a specific vehicle, the driver of that vehicle has broken no law, committed no infraction, or done anything that would warrant Police investigatory activity. (If there were a legitimate reason to stop the vehicle, they would simply stop them on that basis; they wouldn't need to use a minor traffic infraction as a pretext) So if the deciding Officer has no legitimate reason to stop the vehicle outright, upon what then is he or she basing the decision to effectuate the stop? All that CAN be known at the time is the appearance of the car and the appearance of the driver. And as I've stated within the Racial Profiling Task Force meetings, if the Police are not looking for someone who fits my description, then my description should not cause me to be stopped and investigated.

This case will be the first where the Court is specifically asked to rule on the legality or illegality of pretext stops. The City is almost certainly going to argue that the courts should interpret the law to closely follow or mirror Federal law. But that was not our intent when we drafted the bill. We did not write a mere companion bill that would mimic the Federal Statute; our intent was to place this onerous practice under scrutiny. Subsequently, this ruling could be a watershed moment for organizations and communities who are dealing with this issue.

Lawrence Williamson Esq. & Uzo Ohaebosim Esq.

I have been subpoenaed to testify in this case on the 29th of this month. Aaron's case is being handled by Attorney's Lawrence Williamson and Uzo Ohaebosim - two young, strong, civil rights attorneys in whom I have a lot of confidence. I will update you all on this case in the coming weeks. In the interim, keep these guys in your prayers - a victory here could be a real step in eliminating this insidious issue from all of our respective cities.

2 Click HERE to POST or READ the latest comments!!!:

Francis L. Holland Blog April 5, 2008 at 12:58 AM  

Great work, KM! Congratulations to these attorneys and to everyone fighting skin-color based profiling.

I am a Black man. I live in France for three years, driving there and in Italy. I was never, ever stopped by the police there for any reason during those three years. However, in the United States I have sometimes been stopped twice in one week. On one occasion, I was stopped twice in fifteen minutes by the police forces in two neighboring towns. Am I so much more dangerous and lawless in the United States than I am in Europe?

In my opinion, it's the police and their pervasive profiling that are more dangerous and lawless in the United States than in Europe.

Charika Mack,  April 5, 2008 at 5:48 PM  

Thank you for posting this and making the general population aware of the presedings in this case. As a black female living in SC I too have experienced racial profiling and have been tailed multiple times by police officers in the small town that I live in. Presumably it was because I was a young black female driving a high-end luxury vehicle through the "wrong" neighborhood. Go figure! Much prayers and encouragement to Mr. Patterson and his attorneys. I commend you for the stand that you are taking and know that there are those of us in the black community that stand with and in support of you. Press on!

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