FEDERAL judge expands racial profiling lawsuit against California Highway Patrol

Sunday, May 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ A federal judge has dramatically expanded a racial profiling lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol.

U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel granted class-action status Friday to a case alleging CHP officers on three occasions pulled over Hispanic and black men.

The judge said he believes if profiling does exist, it would not likely be limited to a handful of incidents. Plaintiffs can now include all Hispanic and black drivers stopped by the CHP since June 1998 in areas along Highway 101 and Highway 5.

CHP officers stop about 3 million drivers a year on the state's highways; it's not known how many might be affected by the judge's ruling.

Lawyers who brought the case were elated with the ruling.

``This makes it much more powerful as a tool to achieve meaningful change in policies that result in racial profiling,'' said Jon Streeter, handling the suit for 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,'' Tyler Pon said. ``What remains to be seen is whether they can prove it.''

The case has 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 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 area including Highway 101 _ and that blacks were more than twice as likely to be searched.

The ACLU said CHP data show similar rates in the area that includes Highway 5.