Wednesday, July 24, 2002
Trial Begins in Case of Alleged LAPD Racial Profiling Against Virginia Judge
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Civil rights attorney Stephen Yagman told a federal jury yesterday that a Virginia judge and two companions were pulled over in Venice Beach in 1999, handcuffed, and made to lie face down on hot asphalt while nine Los Angeles police officers stood over them with guns drawn—simply because they are black.
In a racial profiling case that many observers say played a key role in the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to seek oversight of the LAPD, Yagman said evidence will show the officers ran a license plate check on the car in which the judge, her fiancé and a friend rode “because they saw three black people in the car, and that’s just what they do.”
Former police chief Bernard Parks and a host of city officials are expected to testify in the trial, which began yesterday on the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder of the Central District of California.
Yagman said Parks would testify that he did not believe “running the plate” of a driver or passenger solely because they are black to be an impermissible instance of racial profiling. Officers carrying out Parks’ view were deviating from a racial profiling policy established by the civilian Police Commission, Yagman said.
Once officers profiled the three, they used excessive force in stopping them, Yagman said.
“You will find that what the police did in this case is un-American,” Yagman said.
Six men and six women jurors were picked yesterday for the trial, which is expected to last several weeks and could be suspended for a week due to time and scheduling conflicts.
The trial is to be bifurcated, with the first phase to focus on liability and a second, if the city is found liable, to determine damages.
Alotha C. Willis, a family law judge in Portsmouth, Va., was visiting Los Angeles with her fiancé, Navy procurement official Wayne Person, to see Person’s childhood friend, teacher Sheryl W. Crayton.
Crayton was at the wheel of her red Volvo with Person next to her and Willis in the back on the Fourth of July weekend-—driving from Venice Beach toward the Cheesecake Factory in Marina del Rey, Yagman said-—when two officers on patrol spotted them.
The officers assert in court papers that they saw the car run a red light. They then ran a check on the plate and obtained a read-out that showed the license number belonged not to a red Volvo, but to a Toyota.
Willis, Person and Crayton claim that they did not run a light, and that the officers ran the plate only because they saw three black people in the car—a classic instance of racial profiling, also known as “driving while black.”
The officers, Manuel Ibarra and Luis Navarrete, called for backup.
Deputy City Attorney Don Vincent told the jury in his opening statement that the officers ran the plate only after they saw the car run through a red light, then followed proper procedures after learning that the plate did not belong to the car.
In fact, both sides agree, the plate was one digit off due to a mistake by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Vincent said there was no way the officers could have known that there was a mistake in the plate, and that they had to suspect a stolen car with possibly armed occupants.
LAPD officers “wouldn’t go to all this trouble, marshal all these forces, to do racial profiling,” Vincent told the jury.
“The evidence will show that this is not a case of racial profiling,” Vincent said. “This is a case of police work. The type of police work that goes on every day. The type of police work you would want your officers to do.”
In late afternoon testimony, Yagman asked Navarrete whether running the plate of a car just because the occupants are black is improper racial profiling. The officer responded first that it was not, but later said, “In my opinion, it would be.”
Earlier in the day, former Police Commission members Raymond Fisher and T. Warren Jackson chatted in the courtroom with longtime commission member Herbert Boeckmann II. All three are expected to testify later in the trial.
Fisher, who served as Police Commission president for five years, left the commission two years before the incident to become a top official in the U.S. Justice Department and was later appointed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he currently sits.
Yagman said Fisher would testify that “racial profiling consists of taking any action against any person at all based on his race.”
But the lawyer, an outspoken critic of the LAPD who has handled dozens of civil rights cases against it, said the organization “always has had, had and still has a custom of racial profiling.”
Suspected racial profiling by law enforcement officers has received increasing scrutiny nationwide over the last five years.
As part of an effort to determine whether the LAPD engages in improper profiling, the 2000 consent decree requires the department to keep statistics on the race of people stopped but not arrested.
Trial resumes today at 9 a.m.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company