The American Bar Association today threw the weight of the nation's lawyers against "racial profiling," the controversial police practice of stopping and questioning minority motorists based on their race.
In a unanimous voice vote, the governing body of the ABA, holding its annual convention here, approved a measure calling for state and local municipalities to collect data about police traffic stops to determine whether minorities are regularly pulled over because of their skin color. If authorities are disproportionately targeting minorities, the resolution said, the nation's agencies of justice should "identify the most efficient and effective methods of ending such discriminatory practices as they find exist."
Minorities, particularly African Americans, long have complained that they are routinely detained, frisked and even handcuffed by police for no apparent cause. In Maryland, for instance, a court-ordered study found that on one stretch of Interstate 95 minorities accounted for 27 percent of traffic stops, even though they comprised 17 percent of drivers.
Police chiefs across the country have countered that racial profiling is essentially a myth, and they bridle at the suggestion that cops are motivated by racism. Many consider collecting data on race a waste of valuable time.
The ABA vote is largely symbolic, but it adds the clout of more than 340,000 attorneys to an attack on racial profiling that has been gaining momentum in recent months. In June, President Clinton directed federal law enforcement authorities to gather data about the gender and ethnicity of people they detained, and said that the Justice Department eventually will analyze the data.
While the bar waded into the racial profiling controversy, it deferred a vote to resolve a decade-long fight with the Justice Department over the conduct of prosecutors. The bar has argued that federal prosecutors should be bound by ethics rules that prevent all lawyers from communicating directly with a person represented by an attorney, unless granted permission by the attorney or a court.
The Justice Department believes that such rules would unduly hamstring their lawyers in certain investigations, and until Congress passed an amendment last year requiring prosecutors to abide by the ethics bylaws of state bars, Justice Department lawyers considered themselves exempt from the no-direct-contact rule. The subject heated up last year after it was learned that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr had questioned Monica S. Lewinsky for hours without first contacting the former White House intern's lawyer.
In recent months, the Justice Department has been negotiating with the ABA to establish some exemptions for prosecutors. It was hoped that the details of a deal would be debated today, but the resolution was taken off the agenda because the two sides have failed to come up with a compromise.
In a speech that opened the House of Delegates meeting today, Attorney General Janet Reno made only passing reference to the issue. Praising the patience of outgoing ABA President Phillip Anderson, she said, "We're going to work through this and we're going to get there."
The ABA's racial profiling resolution was introduced by Dennis Archer, the mayor of Detroit and a member of the ABA's Board of Governors. To Archer, the topic is personal. Fourteen years ago, he was driving back from Lansing when he was pulled over by the police. Ordered into the back seat of a police cruiser, Archer stewed there until officers realized that they had a prominent attorney in their car, not the drug dealer they were seeking.
A similar scenario played out last Memorial Day, when Archer's son, Dennis Archer Jr., was stopped while driving with his girlfriend in a Jeep. With guns drawn the police ordered the younger Archer out of his car with his hands up and told him to shut up when he tried to identify himself, according to his father; his girlfriend was handcuffed. Eventually the officers ran a check on the license plate and learned that they had detained the mayor's son.
"The question is what happens to Anne Smith or Joe Blow, who don't have name recognition?" Archer asked in an interview after the ABA resolution was passed. "What explanation do they get? Do they get an apology?"
CAPTION: Discussing talks with the ABA on new rules for federal prosecutors, Attorney General Janet Reno says, "We are going to get through this and we're going to get there."