Racial Profiling in the Heartland

When a police officer stops a white woman for a minor infraction and asks to see her black passenger’s ID, is it justified? No, it’s racial profiling. And it’s illegal.

Image of police squad car at night for racial profiling post

Passengering While Black/Brown (PWB). Or Is It Plain Ol’ LWB?

The police officer approached the idling car from behind in a Fargo, N.D., parking lot off of 13th Avenue South. He flipped on his flashers, opened his door and approached the vehicle.

The driver, a 17-year old white female, and her passenger, an 18-year-old black male, were scared.

Let’s call them Shelly* and Andrew*. They’re friends and classmates who had been to a high school soccer match earlier that evening, and afterward they decided to hang out at a local restaurant for a while. Now they exchanged confused glances as the white cop approached the driver’s side.

Shelly rolled the electric window down.

Minutes before, at around 10:20 p.m., the friends had been driving behind the squad car in the middle lane of the three-lane thoroughfare.

Shelly, a relatively new driver, was afraid of doing something wrong in the presence of the police. In fact, she was so nervous that she was driving 5 m.p.h. below the posted speed limit.

Even so, she was still very nervous. She decided to pull over and wait until the squad car was no longer in the area.

Shelly put on her blinker and changed from the center lane to the left lane in preparation for exiting 13th Avenue. As soon as she changed lanes, the cruiser slowed until it was next to Shelly’s car. The officer looked directly through the passenger-side window. Right at Andrew.

The policeman then slowed even more and came up behind Shelly’s car.

She was shaking by that time, literally, she recalled later.

As she pulled into the parking lot, the police officer kept driving straight. Shelly parked her car and watched  the cruiser make a left turn at the very next intersection. She and Andrew held their breath as the officer turned left again and, finally, pulled into the parking lot and stopped directly behind them.

“Getting a DWB”

One of my relatives sometimes talks about “getting a DWB” in the large city where he lives with his wife and children. He’s a U.S.-born citizen with Hispanic ancestry.

“DWB?”

“Driving While Brown,” he responded, “or Black.”

Of course I’ve heard of people of color being pulled over by cops for no real discernable reason, other than they weren’t white.

It’s called racial profiling. Intimidation. Harassment.

Not DWI, as in Driving While Intoxicated.

DWB.

The Exchange

The officer leaned toward the window and asked where the two were headed.

“Home,” Shelly and Andrew said, almost in unison.

Then he asked where they’d been.

Shelly explained.

The cop asked for her driver’s license and registration. Then he leaned down a little farther, looked at Andrew and requested his ID, too. Andrew handed it over.

The officer told them to stay where they were, saying he’d be right back. He turned and walked back to his squad car, both IDs and the registration in hand.

“Reasonable Suspicion”

But why? Why would the cop ask to see Andrew’s ID? Was he justified in doing so?

A former private detective who worked with law enforcement and insurance companies investigating crime and fraud, writing for ThoughtCo.com, said,

“Police are allowed to speak to a person or ask a person questions at any time…. People aren’t required to provide legal identification or their name, address, age, or other personal information during a consensual interview.”

He also wrote, “Many states now have ‘stop and identify’ laws that require people to identify themselves when police have reasonable suspicion that they are engaged or about to engage in criminal activity. Under these laws, people who refuse to show identification under these circumstances can be arrested.”

North Dakota is one of those states.

However –

However, note the phrase in the middle of that paragraph: “reasonable suspicion.”

In January 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinforced the “reasonable suspicion” standard in U.S. vs. Landeros:

“…law enforcement officers may not extend a lawfully initiated vehicle stop because a passenger refuses to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed a criminal offense.”

Was there “reasonable suspicion” that Shelly and Andrew had been doing something illegal, were in the process of committing a crime or were planning to do so?

“My Training”? My Lillywhite Backside.

Shelly and Andrew sat in silence as the cop did whatever he did in his cruiser. Finally he re-approached Shelly’s open window and handed her the IDs and vehicle registration.

He told her he pulled her over because the license plate light on the car was out. He also said he was going to pull her over anyway because, according to his training, if a squad car is in the center lane of a three- or more lane street and a car is driving behind it without changing lanes, that’s suspicious. In that case, he said, his training told him he’d need to pull that car over.

The friends didn’t say a word.

He told the Shelly he wasn’t going to cite her for anything, that he was going to “let them go” and that they should go straight home.

No Reasonable Suspicion

Technically, the officer had a reason to pull Shelly over.

Technically.

According to the North Dakota Highway Patrol website, “A license plate light is required on the rear of a vehicle. A tail lamp or a separate lamp must illuminate the rear registration plate with a white light and render it clearly legible from a distance of fifty feet.”

Dubious as the stated purpose for pulling Shelly over was, it is a rule of the road in this state, and it apparently gave the officer the cover he needed for questioning the kids and getting their identifications.

However –

However, Shelly and Andrew had not been drinking or doing drugs. There was no smell of alcohol or marijuana in the vehicle. No empty bottles, cans or drug paraphernalia to be seen, and there weren’t any weapons out in the open (because there weren’t any in the vehicle). Shelly had not been driving erratically or exceeding the speed limit.

In other words, no reasonable suspicion. And in my view, just racial profiling.

I asked a friend of mine who’s been involved in the legal world for many years about what happened. He said in all those years, he’s never, ever heard of someone being pulled over because of a license plate light being out.

“If her passenger had been white there would have been no issue,” my friend said. “Bottom line is the cop saw a black man with a white woman and looked for something to stop her for.”

Keep in mind, too, that there is no law anywhere in the United States that says a U.S. citizen must carry identification. Andrew wasn’t driving, so he really had no reason to have his ID with him in the first place. What would have happened next if he’d left it home on his dresser?

Thankfully, we’ll never know.

PWB or LWB?

My wife and I have taught our children to treat everyone with the same respect regardless of where they come from or the color of their skin. It’s not something to be proud of. To us, it just is. Golden rule and all that.

Yet people in the United States are getting physically abused and even killed during traffic stops like the one I’ve described, especially people of color.

It makes me mad.

I’m angry that brown and black people, or people of any color or race, ever have to deal with this.

I’m angry that my kids ever have to witness this kind of racially motivated harassment.

I’m angry that my kids – just because they’re friends with kids who don’t happen to be white – could find themselves in a situation like this, and truly be in danger.

I’m not just damn mad, either; I also feel frustrated, helpless.

And if I, as a middle-aged white man, feel mad, frustrated and helpless, I can only imagine how people of color must feel about this kind of crap, and how terrified they must be for their family members and friends every moment of their lives.

And they don’t just deal with DWBs or PWBs; in reality they deal with LWBs. They deal with this crap just because they are “Living While Black/Brown,” or any other color but white.

The United States of America has a long, long way to go.

Racial Profiling – Stuck with Safe and Sorry

I will never, ever tell my children who they can or cannot hang out with because of the color of anyone’s skin. As much as it pains me, the only advice I can give them, and their friends, is to cooperate as much as possible. Don’t do anything to escalate the situation, I tell them. But I hate saying that, because they’d be well within their rights to not hand over their IDs to an officer.

It’d be different, maybe, if it were me in the passenger seat. I might tell the cop I don’t have to show him anything.

But when it’s my kid and someone else’s kid that could be racially profiled, intimidated, harassed, I have to tell them, “Cooperate. Don’t escalate.” I’m forced to stick with the old platitude, “Better Safe Than Sorry,” because it applies, even when one is morally and ethically correct.

Besides, it’ll never be me. Middle-aged white man here.

Yeah, I’d heard “DWB” before. And now, I’m deeply saddened to say, I’ve heard of “PWB,” too.

* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Know Your Rights – When can police ask for ID?

9/4/19 Update – One reader has suggested it might be standard operating procedure for FPD officers to ask for passengers’ IDs during traffic stops, and that I should find out. I left a voicemail for the FPD public affairs officer last week. No response yet.

© Martin C. Fredricks IV, 2019

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Author: Martin C. Fredricks IV

Martin C. “Red” Fredricks IV here. I’m husband to an amazing woman who is also my best friend, dad to three outstanding kids, proud Fargoan (North Dakota, that is), veteran messaging strategist/copywriter, blogger and big-time reader. (If you're gonna write good stuff, you have to read good stuff.) A ginger, too (ergo the "Red"). At age 50 I'm a newbie to tattoos - I have three now - but the kind artists at the parlor tell me it's never too late. I like hanging out with my best friend, who also happens to be my wife, watching the kids in their academic and athletic activities, writing, hiking and riding my mountain bike.

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