Maryland approved an agreement yesterday that is expected to influence state police conduct in routine traffic stops, providing safeguards against discrimination, and that brings to a close the longest-running racial profiling lawsuit in the nation.
In unanimously approving a $325,000 consent decree, the three-member Board of Public Works ended an at-times bitter 10-year dispute that pitted the state against the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and 14 African American motorists who say they were stopped by state troopers strictly because of the color of their skin.
"The new set of guidelines in the field, I hope, will forever put this issue -- and it's a real issue -- to bed," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said.
A final agreement had been delayed since early January at Ehrlich's request. After initially saying he had "big time" problems that required significant changes, he supported the agreement yesterday with relatively minor clarifications.
Under the consent decree, state troopers who stop motorists will be required to provide a pamphlet that includes an explanation of how to file a complaint against them. Troopers will begin collecting more detailed information on the race of motorists stopped or searched and will make more use of video cameras on troopers' cars to record traffic stops.
A point person will analyze the information troopers collect, investigate disparities and make sure supervisors work with troopers. A 15-member citizen-police panel will consult on management reforms or training necessary.
Before yesterday's Board of Public Works vote, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer protested that the agreement would prevent troopers from pursuing drug dealers aggressively.
"Mark my words, [Interstate 95] will continue to be a great raceway for drugs," Schafer said. In the end, however, he voted for the settlement, though he objected to paying the $325,000 to cover plaintiffs' legal costs.
State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) disagreed with Shaefer's objections. "I find it impossible to believe that we can't continue to do our jobs in a way that is not racially discriminating or racially profiling and still get the criminals," she said.
The plaintiffs hailed the vote.
"This is a historic day. It's been a long, hard fight," said Gary Rodwell, one of 14 African American motorists who with the NAACP and the ACLU filed suit against the state. "This will work better for us all. It will mean safe streets and safe cities while ensuring the rights of motorists."
The agreement left unresolved an underlying issue: Have Maryland state troopers, consciously or not, used racial profiling while making traffic stops? Surveys have shown that on one stretch of I-95, troopers searched the vehicles of African Americans at two and three times the rate that they searched those of white drivers.
In 1996, Rodwell was stopped about 9 p.m. on I-95 as he drove from work in Philadelphia to be with his young son in Baltimore for the weekend. He alleges that when he refused to allow a trooper to search his car, saying he didn't understand why it was necessary, the trooper forced him into the back of a patrol car and pressured him for three hours. After a canine squad found nothing illegal, the trooper berated him for wasting everybody's time. A tow truck was ordered, though there was nothing wrong with the car, Rodwell said. He said the tow truck driver took him to a teller machine, where he withdrew $80, paid the driver and was on his way again.
"I felt severely wronged," Rodwell said. "But I was afraid to do anything. I had to travel I-95 all the time, I didn't want to raise anyone's ire."
He joined the lawsuit when he discovered that troopers had failed to record the stop, as was required under a 1995 settlement. The first lawsuit, filed in 1992, required troopers to report stops and collect data to determine whether they were racially profiling. When the ACLU discovered that those records weren't being kept, it brought suit again.
Maryland State Police Superintendent Edward T. Norris contends that troopers don't engage in racial profiling and that troopers for years have been operating under a cloud of false accusations.
"I don't buy into this notion that we racially profile," he said after the vote. "I agreed to enter into this consent agreement to protect troopers." The initial plan, Norris said, maligned troopers by requiring them to give stopped motorists a pamphlet that did nothing more than explain how to file a complaint against troopers.
"I thought that was ludicrous," Norris said. "We're not in the business of making people happy. We're the state police."
Ehrlich said he thought that provision was "too much of an invitation to sue."
Under the agreement signed yesterday, which the plaintiffs had agreed to already, the pamphlet will include other information about the rights of the public and information about standard police procedure, such as calling in a backup car or ordering a dog search. The pamphlet will include information about FBI terrorism alerts and Amber alerts, which signal that a child has been abducted.