Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Probable cause" : driving while appearing hispanic

Last weekend my friend Ben Lowe was heading toward Chicago with three friends, all Wheaton College graduates, when an unmarked police car pulled them over. One of the cops explained to the driver that there is "a problem with Hispanics coming from the western suburbs into Chicago" and "carrying drugs in their vehicles."

As it happens, none of the men is Hispanic (which is irrelevant anyway, since ethnicity is no reason to stop a law-abiding driver), and there were no drugs in the vehicle. Ben, however, is the Democratic nominee from the 6th Congressional District, and Ben is not happy.

You can read his account of what happened on his blog. If you'd like to read the raw notes he took shortly after the incident, continue reading this post. Predictably, the police are denying the incident to reporters.

Ben's notes

April 24, 2010 8:35pm (time on ticket) – incident started 8:20ish onwards

On Route 38 (Roosevelt Road) in Cicero headed into Chicago for dinner. There were four of us Wheaton grads in the car discussing the new Arizona immigration law and how it was going to encourage more racial profiling, when we saw flashing lights behind us and got pulled over by an unmarked cop car (license plate m/p2901).

Reed was the driver and so he rolled down window and the Officer #1 (Caucasian/White) asked for his license and insurance, which Reed handed him. The officer asked where we were going and we told him we were headed to a restaurant in Pilsen called La Cebollita, at the intersection of 18th and Ashland. Officer #1 asked Reed to step out and took him to the unmarked car behind us where he searched Reed alone. After the search, Reed asked to verify the officer’s ID and the officer just pointed to his badge without saying anything. Reed asked again and the officer pointed back to his badge, smirked, and did not say anything.

Officer #2 (Hispanic) asked Jonathan, Ryan and me to step out and, along with officer #3 (Caucasian/white) who pulled up in a marked car behind us, they lined us up with our hands on the unmarked car and searched the three of us. Ryan and Jonathan both asked separately for the reason for the traffic stop but were intentionally ignored. They took our drivers licenses from our pockets and radioed in the info (since they apparently did not have access to their database in their cars). We heard the radio response that none of us had any records in their system.

They made us keep our hands on the squad car – Ryan asked if we could put them down after a while but was rebuffed – while they searched our vehicle. Officer #2 approached Reed and explained to him 1-on-1 that we were pulled over on “probable cause” because we “were light-skinned” and could have been “Hispanic”. Officer #2 continued to clarify to Reed that this counted as “probable cause” because there is a “problem with Hispanics coming from the west suburbs” and “Wheaton” “into Chicago on Route 38” and “carrying drugs in their vehicles”. Jonathan overheard this in explanation as well. They then told all of us that as long as the car checked out we would be on our way in a couple minutes.

A few minutes later, they gave us our licenses back, thanked us for cooperating in their investigation, and said we could go. I then told them that I was a congressional candidate in the district over and asked if I could get some documentation in case anyone asked about the incident down the road. The officers were immediately suspicious and asked why I would need that. I said I wasn’t sure, but just wanted to be safe. Officer #2 then said he already told Reed the reason for the traffic stop and that Reed would tell us later. I asked if I could still have some official information on the incident, such as one of their badge numbers, and officer #2 said what he could do is write Reed a ticket for probable cause, which was the reason they pulled us over.

I asked what that was about. Then officer #2 said he was not even supposed to be talking to me (not sure why here) and another one of the officers remarked that no one had ever asked for a ticket from them before. Officer #2 thereafter directed the remaining conversation to Reed. Reed said he would like the ticket for probable cause and so they asked us to wait back in our car.

After a longer period of time, during which they shined the spotlight into our car on and off, officer #1 brought Reed the ticket and said there were three options on the back, and that once Reed took take care of the ticket they would send him his license back. And then he immediately walked back to his car and they drove off without letting us ask questions.

The ticket was for “failure to wear a seatbelt required” but we can all vouch that Reed was wearing a seatbelt when we were pulled over and only unbuckled it to get his license out of his back pocket for the officer. And they did not mention the seatbelt at any point in any of our interactions. When we got back into the vehicle to wait, Reed did not start the car up and so did not have his seatbelt on then. We also do not understand why they confiscated his license. Reed plans to contest the ticket in the Cicero court and all officers had Cicero police badges on.

--Ben Lowe


Modern Knight said...

Yours is the most thorough account I have seen on this report. No where else have I seen mention of denials from the police - do you have a cite for that? Has there been a complaint made by Mr. Lowe? The allegations are very serious and demand an investigation.

LaVonne Neff said...

All my information is directly from Ben, who is a friend. I don't know what follow-up is going to happen. That will depend on what the driver (not Ben) wants to do, since the ticket was issued to him.

LaVonne Neff said...

I've added a link in the article to a May 5 Suburban Life article about what the police are saying: