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David A. Harris

84 Minnesota Law Review 265-326 (1999)
(Permission Requested, citations omitted)

Talk to almost any black person any place in the country and you will hear accounts of pretextual traffic stops. Some say they have experienced it many times. All of those interviewed--not criminals trying to explain away wrongdoing, but people with good jobs and families--described an experience common to blacks, but almost invisible to whites. The stories of several of these individuals illustrate what the experience is like and how it has impacted their lives.

Karen Brank, a licensed social worker in her early thirties with a young son, had never been in trouble with the police. But one morning, on her way to work for a monthly staff meeting, all of that changed when Brank was pulled over for speeding. Brank recalls being one of several cars that were traveling down a main thoroughfare at about the same rate of speed. The officer who stopped her told her she was going too fast. He then asked for her license and registration and took these items to the squad car. When he returned, the officer told Brank that there were outstanding warrants for her arrest for unpaid traffic tickets. Brank remembered the tickets because she did not get many and told the officer that she had paid them weeks before. But when she could not produce a receipt to prove payment (and who could have?), the officer said he would have to arrest her.

Brank was stunned. Arrest me? she thought. What do you mean arrest me? I'm not a criminal--I'm on my way to work! This could not be happening--and yet it was. It turned out later that the warrants were incorrect. Brank had paid, but a clerical error had kept the tickets in the computer system. Additional squad cars arrived, making the area around her car look like a crime scene. Mistake or not, minutes later Brank stood by the side of the road in handcuffs so tight that they left ugly red marks on her wrists for several days. She was distraught, breaking down in tears standing next to a public street. She can still feel the sting of embarrassment.

I was really upset. I was like, "Why are you guys handcuffing me about some tickets?" They had me standing outside with all these people passing by. It was so humiliating.

Months afterward, the pain she experienced during these moments still becomes visible on her face as she recalls the incident. She was put into a squad car and sat there, afraid to say anything.

I didn't say nothing, because I figured if I said anything, if I moved, that would just give them permission to beat me. And I did not want that to happen because I have a little boy.

Brank watched as the police searched her car. She says that the other officers on the scene--perhaps four or five--exchanged high fives with the arresting officer, accompanied by phrases like "good job" and "you got another one." Eventually, she was taken downtown and released. Brank felt unable to go to work that day. In the days that followed, her co-workers could tell something was wrong, but for some reason she hesitated to tell them what had happened. "I didn't want anyone to know. I was so embarrassed."

Brank is firmly convinced that she was singled out from the other cars around her, which she says were going the same speed, because she is black. She is sure that a white person would not have been handcuffed and humiliated the way she was. But the police officer who stopped her denies this. "The only reason I stopped her was because of a violation--speeding," he says, adding that he caught her on radar. "I don't care if you're black, blue, beige, brown, whatever--if you're violating the law, I'll stop you." And he categorically denies that any high fives or congratulatory words were exchanged.

James, a well-dressed, 28-year-old advertising account executive with a media company, also has been stopped for numerous traffic offenses. "I'm not one of those guys who says, 'Oh yeah, blacks, we've just got it bad," ' he says. But being stopped repeatedly by police is such an unchangeable part of life for him that "it's like the fact that I'm black."

James described an incident that took place recently in an upscale neighborhood, where he had visited a friend. After socializing for a while, James left the house and got in his car to leave. As soon as he pulled out of the driveway, James noticed that a police car was following him. Although he drove with extra care, the officer pulled James over and questioned him, accused him of weaving, checked his license and registration, and threatened to give him a citation for not wearing a seat belt. "I think he saw a black male in that neighborhood and he was suspicious," James says. Months later, the anger James felt that night remains fresh.

I feel like I'm a guy who's pretty much walked the straight line and that's respecting people and everything. But if cops will even bother me, that makes me think, well, it's gotta be something . . . [W]e just constantly get harassed. So we just feel like we can't go nowhere without being bothered . . . I'm not trying to bother nobody. But yet I got a cop pull me over says I'm weaving in the road. And I just came from a friend's house, no alcohol, no nothing. It just makes you wonder--was it just because I'm black?

It would be a mistake to think that pretextual traffic stops are limited to younger blacks. Michael, 41, is tall, attractive, and well-spoken. He is the top executive in an important public institution and has been stopped by the police many times. One afternoon, Michael was driving to a local high school to work out. As he approached the parking lot, he saw a parked police cruiser, so he drove with extra caution. "As I pulled up and put it in park and turned the key off, this police car comes screeching up behind me--the lights flashing, the whole deal," Michael says. The squad car blocked him in to the parking space, so he could not leave. But when the officer walked up to the window, he immediately noticed Michael's official identification. Without offering any explanation for why he had treated Michael as if he were a dangerous criminal, the officer "just backed away and he was gone. Just disappeared."

Michael was angry and frustrated at being treated this way, but it was not the first time it had happened. As he has done many times before, he distanced himself from the experience as a kind of emotional self-defense.

You've gotta learn to play through it. Even though you haven't done anything wrong, the worst thing you can do in a situation like that is to become emotionally engaged when they do that to you. . . . Because if you do something, maybe they're going to do something else to you for no reason at all, because they have the power. They have the power and they can do whatever they want to do to you for that period of time. . . . It doesn't make a difference who you are. You're never beyond this, because of the color of your skin.

For many blacks, the emotional cost is profound. Karen Brank missed work and experienced depression. For some time afterwards, she felt a wave of fear wash over her every time she saw a police car in her rearview mirror. In that one brief encounter, her entire sense of herself--her job, the fact that she is a mother and an educated, law-abiding person working on a master's degree--was stripped away. Kevin, an executive in his thirties with a large financial services corporation, a husband, and father with several young children, says his experiences have left him with very negative feelings about police. "When I see cops today, I don't feel like I'm protected. I'm thinking, 'Oh shoot, are they gonna pull me over, are they gonna stop me?' That's my reaction. I do not feel safe around cops."

To cope, African-Americans often make adjustments in their daily activities. They avoid certain places where they think police will "look" for blacks. Some drive bland cars. "I drive a minivan because it doesn't grab attention," says Kevin. "If I was driving a BMW"--a car he could certainly afford--"different story." Some change the way they dress. Others who drive long distances even factor in extra time for the inevitable traffic stops they will face.

But nowhere does the effect of racially-biased traffic stops become more painful than when blacks instruct their children on how to behave when--not if--they are stopped by police. Michael remembers, "[M]y dad would tell me, 'If you get pulled over, you just keep your mouth shut and do exactly what they tell you to do. Don't get into arguments, and don't be stupid. It doesn't make a difference [that you did nothing wrong]. Just do what they tell you to do." ' Officer Ova Tate, a thirteen-year veteran police officer and an African-American, told his teenage son not to expect special treatment because Tate is a police officer. "[If] you're black, you're out in the neighborhood, it's a fact of life you're going to be stopped. So how you deal with the police is how your life is going to be. They say you did something, say 'O.K.,' and let them get out of your life." Karen Brank's son is young, but she says that when the time comes, she will know what to say to him. Perhaps thinking of her own experience, she acknowledges the emotional cost, but knows it cannot be avoided.

[The police] are supposed to be there to protect and to serve, but you being black and being male, you've got two strikes against you. Keep your hands on the steering wheel, and do not run, because they will shoot you in your back. Keep your hands on the steering wheel, let them do whatever they want to do. I know it's humiliating, but let them do whatever they want to do to make sure you get out of that situation alive. Deal with your emotions later. Your emotions are going to come second--or last. These instructions will undoubtedly give black children a devastatingly poor impression of the police, but African-American parents say they have no choice. They know that traffic stops can lead to physical, even deadly, confrontations. Christopher Darden, the African-American prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson case, says that to survive traffic stops, he "learned the rules of the game years before . . . Don't move. Don't turn around. Don't give some rookie an excuse to shoot you." This may seem like an overreaction, but given the facts of life on the street, it seems likely that most African-American parents would agree.