$400,000 Settlement Reached in Decade-Old Racial Profiling Suit
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Maryland State Police and civil rights attorneys announced a $400,000 settlement yesterday to end a long-running racial profiling lawsuit that accused state troopers of unfairly harassing motorists who are racial minorities.
The federal civil lawsuit was filed in 1998 on behalf of 14 African American motorists. The settlement applies to the six plaintiffs who remain; over the years, eight plaintiffs have dropped out of the litigation or been dismissed by a judge.
Under the terms of the settlement, the state will pay $300,000 to be split among the remaining plaintiffs, with some of the money also going toward legal costs. The state has also agreed to pay up to $100,000 to hire a consultant to assess whether the agency is practicing policy changes aimed at ending racial profiling.
Those policy changes, which include collecting detailed information on the race of motorists who are stopped and providing those motorists with pamphlets explaining how to file a complaint about a stop, were part of a 2003 agreement that settled major portions of the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of the motorists by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Maryland. Lawyers with Hogan & Hartson LLP, who joined the case in 2003, contributed more than 5,000 hours of pro bono legal work, according to Martin Price, a partner with the firm.
Yesterday, less than a week before the case was to go to trial, the settlement was approved by the state Board of Public Works.
State police, who did not admit wrongdoing, referred questions to the attorney general's office, which defended the agency in court. Assistant Attorney General David Moore said the state police as an agency was thrown out as a defendant in fall 2006 on summary judgment, leaving six state troopers as defendants.
Attorneys for the black motorists, and one of the plaintiffs, said in interviews yesterday that they were happy with the settlement and optimistic that it would lead to positive change.
"I'm just thrilled with it," said Debbie Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland. "It has been a very long journey for these plaintiffs. They've been fighting to vindicate their rights for a long time."
Jeon said "substantial progress" has been made on these issues since 1998. She said she believes that Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who was elected in 2006, and Maryland's new state police superintendent, Terrence B. Sheridan, are committed to the reforms aimed at stamping out racial profiling.
"I think it's great," William B. Berry, one of the plaintiffs, said of the settlement. "I've really been looking forward to this." According to the lawsuit, state troopers stopped Berry twice on Interstate 95 in 1996. The first time, Berry was not searched and was ticketed for speeding. The second time, on May 2, 1996, Berry was stopped as he was driving south in Cecil County.
Berry was given no reason for the stop, according to the lawsuit. One state trooper ordered Berry out of his car and asked him whether he was carrying drugs or a weapon and whether he would consent to a search. When Berry hesitated, the trooper said that if he didn't agree to the search, Berry would be arrested for "obstruction of justice," according to the lawsuit. Berry agreed to the search, and a state trooper found nothing illegal.
In a joint statement, attorneys for the plaintiffs and the state police said: "In recent years, racial profiling has become widely recognized as an important civil rights issue, here in Maryland, and across the United States. The need to treat motorists of all races with respect, dignity, and fairness under the law is fundamental to good police work and a just society. The Maryland State Police is committed to preventing racial profiling because it is the right thing to do."