Driving While Black

Fear & Loathing on the New Jersey Turnpike

It is a 148-mile stretch of asphalt that some black motorists refer to as ''White Man's Pass.'' In their journeys along this dreaded roadway, which connects New York City with New Jersey and other points on the I-95 corridor, these motorists complain they are often catapulted headlong into an explosive collision with race, crime, and the law.

Since 1988--and possibly long before that--state police have been ''engaged in a program of racial targeting'' on the New Jersey Turnpike, according to court documents in a pending case against 19 black men and women who, in a joint motion, claimed they were illegally targeted, stopped, searched, and arrested by troopers on the turnpike in Gloucester County between January 1988 and April 1991. Allegedly, the troopers target blacks, especially those driving luxury cars such as BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Lexuses. The state police assert that it is a trumped-up conflict and deny they practice such a policy; if anything, they insist, their actions amount to nothing more than aggressive enforcement of traffic regulations. But for blacks, who experts say are nearly five times more likely than whites to be stopped on the turnpike, it is a case of constantly being picked on for DWB--Driving While Black.

O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran and other civil rights leaders maintain that this racially selective policing resulted in two white troopers firing 11 shots at four unarmed minority basketball players in a late-model Dodge Caravan they had stopped on the turnpike on April 23 near Exit 7A in Mercer County. Seriously injured in the April 23 incident, which attracted national attention, were Rayshawn Brown, 20, and Leroy G. Grant, 23, both of Manhattan, and Danny Reyes, 21, of Queens. The driver, Keshon L. Moore, 22, of Queens, was not hit. No charges have yet been filed in the incident, which is being investigated by a state grand jury.

A startling development in the case last Friday seemed to cast doubt on the assertions of discrimination made by Cochran, who is representing three of the men. Wayne D. Greenfeder, the white attorney for Rayshawn Brown, who was shot twice, told the Associated Press he is not sure racial profiling led to the traffic stop.

Seeking to reinforce the contention that overt racism is responsible for wide disparities between minorities and whites in police stops, the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey last week reached a tentative accord with New Jersey state police superintendent Colonel Carl A. Williams to have video cameras mounted in all state police cruisers to monitor stops. Asking troopers to police themselves, however, may strike a raw nerve with the New York City--based 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement and the New Jersey--based Black Cops Against Police Brutality, whose members have been threatened with arrest by the Turnpike Authority if they violate ''restrictions on filming, photographing and videotaping on the Turnpike.''

''State Police will fully enforce these regulations,'' Turnpike executive director Edward Gross warned in a May 22 letter to Black Cops Against Police Brutality.

Over the Memorial Day weekend, a defiant Eric Adams, who heads Blacks in Law Enforcement, and his partner Michael Greys left behind their NYPD-issued Glock 9mm pistols, armed themselves with video cameras, and took to patrolling the New Jersey highways in Greys's Mercedes-Benz, looking for troopers who stalk innocent black motorists. Fifty other off-duty NYPD officers linked up with black cops and corrections officers from Trenton and Philadelphia and positioned themselves along suspected DWB checkpoints. ''We notified these troopers that if we found anything suspicious we would film it, so I guess they were on their best behavior,'' said Adams, adding that the black cops will conduct unannounced random patrols in the future.

Two years ago, New Jersey Superior Court judge Robert E. Francis found that racial profiling ''was tolerated and in certain ways encouraged at the highest levels in the State Police hierarchy,'' according to lawyers for the 19 blacks who consolidated their cases in 1990 to fight the charges. Declaring that the state police practiced ''selective enforcement'' during that period, Francis ruled that if the troopers had any evidence against the defendants it had been obtained illegally and must be suppressed. Many of the defendants, supposedly stopped for speeding, were in cars in which it was alleged that drugs, guns, and other contraband were found. Prosecutors are fighting to reinstate charges, and the case is now before the Apellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey.

''Indeed, this wrong decision has already encouraged many other defendants to pursue similar motions regarding stops on other highways in this state,'' the New Jersey attorney general's office complained in court papers. ''[The] defendants utterly failed to prove their pernicious and baseless allegations of racially motivated selective prosecution.''

In legal papers opposing the state's appeal, William H. Buckman and Justin Loughry, who represent four of the motorists, claim that ''to this day the State Police attempts to justify its actions and record...on the Jim Crow notion that at least on the Turnpike blacks are inferior, that they drive worse, and that they therefore attract disproportionate police attention.''

The lawyers argued that state police wanted Judge Francis to ''believe that blacks drive worse because they are stopped more. This 'logic' is...morally repugnant. Yet it is the essence of the State's case. Without a shred of evidence it seeks to blame en masse the victims of a State Police scheme to target blacks...on the Turnpike.

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