Saturday, September 13, 2014

From The Sidewalk To The Highway - Walking & Driving While Black

by Soup2Nuts Media 

Stop and Frisk has garnered a copious amount of attention the past two years. The suspect policing procedure that gives street officers the autonomy to  stop and question pedestrians  and frisk them for weapons and other contraband. The procedure  has been proven by opponents and data to be in most cases nothing more than a vehicle for veiled profiling of people of color. Judges have even found that an abnormal number of stops  are not related to criminal activity. Stop and Frisk, however has a dark sibling that has grown full blown since 9-11.  Profiling goes from the sidewalk to the highway with the focus on money . Enter Highway Interdiction.

 The motivating incentive  of Highway Interdiction is a program known as Equitable Sharing involving cash seizures can be made under state or federal civil law.

Favorable court rulings have emboldened law-enforcement officers to implement more aggressive and vague  tactics in deciding which motorists they pull over, how they establish probable cause to search a vehicle and how long they detain drivers. Amid the battle against illegal drugs, threats of terrorism, and wanted fugitives  some stops entangled innocent citizens in the criminal justice system  simply because of how they look.

 Highway Interdiction is one of the primary ways police departments are able to seize money and share in the proceeds at the federal level . Asset forfeiture is an extraordinarily powerful law enforcement tool that allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges and then requires the owners to prove their possessions were legally acquired.

Highway Interdiction shares the same concept as Stop & Frisk with  the exception being traffic stops are the pre text for further searches of a vehicle and its occupants. Some of the individual particulars remind me of the old movie scenes where the officer pulls over a vehicle and as  he's walking from the cruiser to the stopped vehicle he smashes the taillight of the pulled over vehicle then informs the driver he was pulled over for a smashed taillight.

The Washington Post recently compiled exhaustive data that turned up instance after instance of  disproportionate numbers of people of color being pulled over and large sums of cash being taken from those individuals by the police.  A number of those that had cash taken from them legally challenged the stops and loss of monetary property. The key findings by the Post are telling.

The Post found:

  • There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.

  • Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.

The authorities that abuse the latitude the Highway Interdiction program extends to them, are getting away with it in almost half the recorded cases. People's hard earned money are being taken away from them and the very first backlash - insolvency with and in itself impedes the victims from pursuing legal action.

The Justice Department says it doesn't  collect race data . But in 400 federal court cases examined by The Washington Post where people who challenged seizures and received some money back, the majority were black, Hispanic or another minority.

Those findings by the Washington Post won't surprise anyone that's been in tune to the news the past year. They certainly won't come as a surprise to the Black, Hispanic and Muslim demographic of the country.  Highway Interdiction is one government sanctioned program in a portfolio of many that when employed on the streets of America always snares a disproportionate number of minorities. Who remembers the "War on Drugs" from the 80s?  And for those that are going to say , aww this is the Washington Post being one-sided in their reporting -there are other media outlets that have documented this practice extensively with similar findings.  The Orlando Sentinel won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for pointing out that the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office had used state seizure laws to take $8 million from motorists, nine out of 10 of them minorities.

Highway robbery Interdiction doubles down on innocent people by getting them entangled in the criminal justice system and financially crippling them. To recoup  ill-seized funds, or simply challenge the legality of the stop  from the  the motorists often have to hire legal representation at their own costs. And that’s just the beginning of several costly residual effects of Highway Interdiction gone wild. In the end even if all the ill taken  funds are recouped, the defendant is out several thousand dollars needed to navigated the criminal justice system and can suffer negative social business and employment backlash from being involved in the criminal justice system.    

Consider the outcome of a traffic stop by A 55-year-old Chinese American restaurateur from Georgia. He was pulled over for minor speeding on Interstate 10 in Alabama and detained for nearly two hours. He was carrying $75,000 raised from relatives to buy a Chinese restaurant in Lake Charles  La. The stop resulted in his money being seized by the authorities. He got back his money 10 months later but only after spending thousands of dollars on a lawyer and losing out on the restaurant deal.

Then there is  the 40-year-old Hispanic carpenter from New Jersey who  was stopped on Interstate 95 in Virginia for having tinted windows. Police said he appeared nervous and consented to a search. They took $18,000 that he said was meant to buy a used car. He had to hire a lawyer to get back his money.

Mandrel Stuart, a 35-year-old African American  restaurant owner was stopped by police on Interstate 66 in Fairfax Va in 2012  for a  minor traffic infraction.  During the stop police found $17,550 He was stunned when police took $17,550 from him during that stop . Stuart was never charged with a crime.  He refused a settlement with the government that would have gotten half of his money back and demanded a jury trial. He eventually got all his money back but lost his Smoking Roosters restaurant business because attorney fees had consumed his  overhead.

There are traffic stops where the citizen was relieved of large sums of cash that they never got back.

Then too cash is not always taken in large amounts.

A recent New York Times report said Latino drivers are often pulled if driving a car with an out-of-state license plate.
The Times reported that the petty  theft usually goes like this. The officer will often ask the driver to step out of the car and place their hands on the car. Once the driver is facing the other way, the officer asks to see the driver’s wallet and begins to search the car.
“After a few minutes, he hands the wallet back to the driver, tells him that everything is fine and sends him on his way. Soon afterward, the driver discovers that money is missing from his wallet,” the New York Times said.

A Suffolk County, N.Y., police officer was arrested in connection to the above noted thefts. He was nabbed  during a sting operation in January after stealing $100 from an undercover Latino detective.

Police say when they  scrutinize vehicles  their top objectives include identifying  homeland security threats such as cache of weapons being smuggled, human trafficking and drugs. They say they look for abnormal driving patterns, certain vehicle characteristics, extremely paranoid driving patterns ( 10 -15 miles under the speed limit, signaling blocks away from a turn etc) blatant display of religious and law enforcement windshield and bumper stickers  and of course traffic violations and plate checks returning negative information.

They deny ethnicity as a criteria for pulling over motorists. However, the collected data by think tanks suggests that ethnicity is disproportionate when the number Whites stopped are compared to the number of Blacks stopped. Then there are the individuals that are speaking out about what they feel are illegal traffic stops. The majority are minorities, and the majority of those minorities stopped are turning up innocent of any criminal or civil infractions.

The aggressive profiling by police is in fact incentivized by the funds the questionable vehicle stops generated, legality not withstanding.

In 1985, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles issued guidelines for the police on "The Common Characteristics of Drug Couriers." The guidelines cautioned troopers to be suspicious of rental cars, "scrupulous obedience to traffic laws," and drivers wearing "lots of gold," or who do not "fit the vehicle," and "ethnic groups associated with the drug trade." Traffic stops were initiated by the state troopers using this overtly race-based profile.   SOURCE

The above excerpt references guidelines implemented by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in 1985. A simple  search of "Highway Interdiction"  on the  net confirms those guidelines are among additional ones some law enforcement agencies still teach and follow some 23 years later.

Its disturbing to know that people of color are targeted by the authorities as pedestrians, and motorists. At the least it's unsettling to know that one could lose money, freedom, and possibly their life if a police officer chooses to justify a profiled stop by labeling it a possible drug deal, or terrorism interdiction.

For those that still believe abuse of programs like Highway Interdiction is a quasi perception by those unaffected by it and baseless whining by those snared by it - simply ask a person of color their experiences with traffic stops or the police in general. One out of three will have had an abnormal encounter on one level or the other.

As more people that are unfairly targeted by programs like Stop & Frisk and Highway Interdiction come forward the momentum for reform of such programs will build. They also can be challenged politically through  the lawmakers that are supposed to be representing us on the state and federal levels. The challenge and pushback will have to come from those affected by the abuse of the latitude and discretion these policies afford officers entrusted with making discerning decisions on the street.

Do know at the time of interaction with street officers is not the time to escalate the encounter into a challenge. Yes, know your rights and hold the officer accountable to allowing you your on the spot rights. But if you suspect there is something wrong about the stop, and / or you're violated or lose any property - take it up with your attorney ASAP. There are endless reports of police stops that have produced beatings and murders that gets charged back to the motorist being the antagonist turned threat. You don't want to be that guy or woman.

Know your rights: During traffic stops on the nation’s highways, the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects motorists “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The law also gives police the power to investigate and act on their suspicions.

1. Police have a long-established authority to stop motorists for traffic infractions. They can use traffic violations as a pretext for a deeper inquiry as long as the stop is based on an identifiable infraction.

2. An officer may detain a driver only as long as it takes to deal with the reason for the stop. After that, police have the authority to request further conversation. A motorist has the right to decline and ask whether the stop is concluded. If so, the motorist can leave.

3. The officer also has the authority to briefly detain and question a person as long as the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is based on specific and articulable facts but falls short of the legal standard for making an arrest.

4. A traffic infraction or reasonable suspicion alone do not give police authority to search a vehicle or a closed container, such as luggage. Police may ask for permission to search; drivers may decline. Police do not have to tell drivers that they have a right to refuse.

5. An officer may expand a roadside investigation if the driver’s responses and other circumstances justify a belief that it is more likely than not that criminal activity is occurring. Under this standard, known as probable cause, an officer can make an arrest or search a vehicle without permission. An alert by a drug-sniffing dog can provide probable cause, as can the smell of marijuana.

6. Police can seize cash that they find if they have probable cause to suspect that it is related to criminal activity. The seizure happens through a civil action known as asset forfeiture. Police do not need to charge a person with a crime. The burden of proof is then on the driver to show that the cash is not related to a crime by a legal standard known as preponderance of the evidence.

Sources: Jon Norris, criminal defense attorney; David A. Harris, University of Pittsburgh law professor; Scott Bullock, civil liberties lawyer, Institute for Justice; Department of Homeland Security.The Washington Post

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