Lawmaker Proposing Stricter Racial Profiling Laws

Rhode Island enacted the Racial Profiling Prevention Act in 2004 (under R.I.G.L. 31-21.1) in response to similar statutes passed in most States. The unfortunate reality is that racial profiling exists and happens everyday, everywhere. The racial disparity in the number of traffic stops, arrests, convictions, and length of sentence between whites and all other races can not be ignored. Some statistics from Amnesty International are hard to be ignored:

Racial profiling is a proven failure in the ‘War on Drugs.’ Statistics show that using racial profiling to interdict highway-bound drug couriers is not just wrong, but ineffective. A survey by the Department of Justice in 1999 reveled that while officers disproportionately focused on African American and Latino drivers, they found drugs more often when they searched whites (17%) than when they searched African Americans (8%). A similar survey in New Jersey found that although people of color were searched more frequently, state troopers found drugs in vehicles driven by whites 25% of the time, by African Americans 13%, and by Latinos 5%. According to a study of the US Customs Service’s practice by Lamberth Consulting, when Customs agents stopped using racial profiling to target potential smugglers and began focusing on race-neutral factors such as behavior, they increased the rate of productive searches by more than 300%.

The Rhode Island General Assembly admitted that racial profiling existed in R.I.G.L. 31-21-2.2 (c) “In many communities nonwhite drivers in Rhode Island, subjected to discretionary searches, are twice as likely as whites to be searched.” They also admit that racial profiling causes fear, anxiety, humiliation, and resentment among people unjustifiably treated as criminal suspects and can result in a loss of confidence and public trust in the police and criminal justice system.

The new proposed laws look to take an even tougher stance to combat racial profiling. Some of the suggested components include:

  • requiring officers to document in writing their probable cause for conducting a search during a traffic stop
  • bar police from requesting documentation other than license and registration without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity
  • bar officers for asking passengers for identification without probable cause
  • restrict searches on juveniles

While probable cause for search and seizure always plays a role in a criminal defense case, those who feel they have been subjected to racial profiling are also allowed to sue for damages in civil court.