Race, Ethnicity, and Policing: New and Essential Readings

By Stephen K. Rice; Michael D. White Roberts | Go to book overview

3

The Stories, the Statistics, and the Law
Why “Driving While Black” Matters

David A. Harris

Each one of those stops, for me, had nothing to do with breaking the law. It had to do
with who I was… It's almost like somebody pulls your pants down around your ankles.
You're standing there nude, but you've got to act like there's nothing happening.1

It has happened to actors Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, Blair Underwood, and LeVar Burton. It has also happened to football player Marcus Allen, and Olympic athletes Al Joyner and Edwin Moses. African Americans call it “driving while black”—police officers stopping, questioning, and even searching black drivers who have committed no crime, based on the excuse of a traffic offense. And it has even happened to O. J. Simpson lawyer Johnnie Cochran.

In his pre-Simpson days, Cochran worked hand-in-hand with police officers as an Assistant District Attorney in Los Angeles, putting criminals behind bars. Cochran was driving down Sunset Boulevard one Saturday afternoon with his two youngest children in the back seat when a police car stopped him.2 Looking in his rearview mirror, Cochran got a frightening shock: “the police were out of their car with their guns out.” The officers said that they thought Cochran was driving a stolen car, and with no legal basis they began to search it. But instead of finding evidence, they found Cochran's official badge, identifying him as an Assistant District Attorney. “When they saw my badge, they ran for cover,” Cochran said.3

The incident unnerved Cochran, but it terrified his young children. “[The officers] had their guns out and my kids were in that car crying. My daughter said, 'Daddy, I thought you were with the police.' I had to explain to her why this happened.”4

Cochran's experience is a textbook example of what many African American drivers5 say they go through every day: police using traffic offenses as an excuse to stop and conduct roadside investigations of black drivers and their cars, usually to look for drugs. Normally, if police want to conduct stops and searches for contraband they need probable cause or at least reasonable suspicion that the suspect is involved in an offense.6 But with the Supreme Court's recent cases involving cars, drivers, and passengers, none of this is necessary. Traffic offenses open the door to stops, searches,

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