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Maryland ACLU Sues State Police for Race Bias in Vehicle Searches


March 1993

The Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal class-action lawsuit in February charging that state police searches of black motorists are based on use of an illegal, racially discriminatory drug courier profile (Norris P. West, "ACLU Files Suit Against Md. Police: Race Bias Alleged in Vehicle Searches," The [Baltimore] Sun, 2/13/93, 1B).

Last year, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that state police could not use a drug-courier profile as cause to search motorists' vehicles. The ACLU charges that despite the ruling, state police continue to use a profile based on a young black man or men wearing expensive jewelry, driving expensive cars, wearing beepers, and carrying lists of telephone numbers. Police have denied using the profile.

The suit was triggered by a May 8 search of a car which had as a passenger 29-year-old Robert Wilkins, a black, Harvard Law School graduate who lives and works in Washington, D.C. Wilkins, his cousin, aunt and uncle were returning from a funeral when the car, a rental cadillac, was stopped for speeding on an interstate in Cumberland, Maryland.

Although the driver, Wilkins' cousin, Norman El-Amin, cooperated with the trooper who pulled them over, the trooper asked the El-Amin to sign a release consenting to a search. At this point, Wilkins identified himself as a lawyer and told the trooper that he had no right to search the vehicle unless he was arresting El-Amin. The trooper said that "if they had nothing to hide, then what was the problem?" Another trooper was called in, and the car was detained for 30 minutes until an Allegany sheriff's deputy arrived with a drug-sniffing German shepard. The occupants were forced to stand out in the rain while the dog sniffed the car and found nothing.

The ACLU has received more than 30 complaints over the last five years alleging similar illegal searches, and is currently seeking blacks who believe they have been illegally searched on state roads to join the class-action lawsuit, which requests unspecified damages. Defendants in the suit are the Maryland State Police, two troopers, an Allegany County sheriff's deputy, three Allegany commissioners, and Allegany County.