SAN JOSE – A federal judge has dramatically expanded a racial profiling lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol.
U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel ruled Friday that a case alleging CHP officers on three occasions pulled over Hispanic and black men because of their race could become a class-action suit.
As a result, the case now covers all Hispanic and black drivers stopped by the CHP since June 1998 in areas that stretch along Highway 101 and Interstate 5.
Fogel did not find that the CHP has done anything wrong — rather, the judge believes if profiling does exist, it would not likely be limited to a handful of incidents.
Lawyers who brought the case were elated with the judge’s ruling.
“This makes it much more powerful as a tool to achieve meaningful change in policies that result in racial profiling,” said Jon Streeter, a San Francisco lawyer whose handling the suit with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Staff at the CHP’s Sacramento offices said Commissioner D.O. Helmick would have no comment until at least Monday.
A lawyer from the state attorney general’s office downplayed the decision.
“All it really does is allow the plaintiffs (to continue) their claim that the Highway Patrol has policies and practices that discriminate against Latinos and African Americans,” said Tyler Pon, an attorney general’s office lawyer representing the CHP. “What remains to be seen is whether they can prove it.”
Pon said the CHP does not discriminate against minority motorists.
“If it is determined that the policies of the Highway Patrol discriminate against Latino and African American motorists, then they will be changed,” Pon said.
Findings from the case have already prompted the CHP to change one policy.
Last month, Helmick issued a six-month moratorium on “consent searches” — the kind that officers can conduct only if they receive permission from a driver.
Helmick made that decision after reviewing traffic stop data he asked the CHP to collect from last July through March. Though he initiated the ban, Helmick said, “Our people clearly do not clearly racially profile. ... I think we treat people fairly. We’re just trying to be sure.”
The ACLU countered that it analyzed similar data and concluded that after being stopped, Hispanics were nearly four times more likely to be searched than whites in the central coast region that includes Highway 101 — and that blacks were more than twice as likely to be searched.
The ACLU said CHP data show similar rates in a Central Valley division that includes Interstate 5.
The class-action originated in 1999 with a single plaintiff — San Jose attorney Curtis Rodriguez.
Rodriguez alleges that in June 1998, he was driving on Highway 152 east of San Jose when he noticed CHP officers pulling over Hispanic drivers.
Soon after, Rodriguez also was stopped and detained while a drug-sniffing dog checked the car, but found nothing.
Rodriguez and plaintiffs from two similar incidents want a permanent ban on consent searches and reform in drug interdiction officer training.
The ACLU has argued similar search cases against highway officers in states including Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. this week, police in New Mexico recently settled a class-action suit brought by the ACLU alleging discriminatory law enforcement.