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WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Supreme Court hands victory to police
Green light for racism

By Sharon Smith | May 11, 2001 | Page 6

ON APRIL 24, the U.S. Supreme Court handed a major victory to every police department with a policy of racial profiling. The justices ruled that police have the right to make arrests for the most minor legal infractions--such as littering, having a dog off-leash or failure to wear a seat belt.

The case involved a Texas woman, Gail Atwater, who was handcuffed and carted off to jail by a police officer who charged her for a misdemeanor offense because her two children weren't wearing seat belts. When she was stopped, Atwater was driving her children home from soccer practice. She was driving at 15 miles an hour down a residential street near their home so they could try to find a toy that had fallen out of the car.

Lago Vista police officer Barton Turek "stuck his finger in my chest and started yelling about what a terrible mother I was and how I was going to jail," Atwater said. "I begged him to keep his voice down, because the children were starting to cry. But he just kept coming on strong."

After Atwater was fingerprinted and booked, she was told that she would need to post $310 bail to be released--for a charge that carried a maximum fine of $50 in the state of Texas. After posting bail, Atwater found that her truck had been towed after being searched. She had to pay another $110 to get it back.

But the saga didn't end there. Atwater and her husband, Michael Haass, decided to sue the police department for violating Atwater's constitutional right to unreasonable search and seizure. They sold their home to pay the mounting legal bills, which grew to more than $100,000 by the time the case reached the Supreme Court.

The couple has been the target of ongoing police harassment ever since--and Haass has been charged with assault twice by local police. Now Haass, an emergency room physician, is unable to work, because the hospital where he works has suspended his privileges while his assault charges are pending.

The Atwaters are white and middle class, which is why their case has received national media attention. But the police harassment that they have endured is experienced by hundreds of thousands of Blacks and Latinos, who police stop for allegedly committing tiny traffic violations and then subject to "search incident to arrest." "If someone like me, a soccer mom, can be humiliated and handcuffed in front of her children, what happens to the poor migrant worker or minority when they're stopped?" Atwater asked.

Yet the Supreme Court's majority opinion, written by David Souter, was oblivious to the racial implications of the Atwater case when it ruled in favor of the arresting police officer. "The country is not confronting anything like an epidemic of unnecessary minor-offense arrests," so it is doubtful that the situation "needs constitutional attention," Souter scoffed.

This statement was written less than two weeks after Cincinnati erupted in rioting, when a Black 19-year-old, Timothy Thomas, who was unarmed, was gunned down while running away from Cincinnati police, who were trying to arrest him for 14 misdemeanor charges--five of them for failing to buckle his seatbelt while driving. Even conservative-minded Justice Sandra Day O'Connor objected to the Supreme Court's decision, arguing, "As the recent debate over racial profiling demonstrates all too clearly, a relatively minor traffic infraction may often serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing an individual."

On I-95 in Maryland, Blacks make up 17 percent of motorists, but 73 percent of those stopped and searched. In Illinois, where Latinos are just 8 percent of the population, they are 30 percent of those stopped by police.

Last year, a Human Rights Watch report on the war on drugs showed that U.S. prisons are swelling with Blacks and Latinos incarcerated for minor drug offenses--not because they make up the majority of drug offenders (they don't) but because of racial profiling policies that systematically target them for harassment.

Racial profiling is why, according to Human Rights Watch, Blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population but 62 percent of the nation's imprisoned drug offenders. In the state of Illinois, with the greatest racial disparity, Blacks are 57 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drugs.

With statistics like these, racial profiling can only be described as an epidemic--one that's growing and accumulating outrage among every one of the millions victimized by it.

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