It’s called DWB — Driving While Black. And while it is not a crime, too many police officers treat it as if it were.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, and others say officers stop an unwarranted number of blacks and Hispanics for alleged traffic violations, hoping to find evidence of other criminal activity. The practice is known as racial profiling.
"We must stop the invidious practice of racial profiling. All citizens, regardless of their race, should be free to travel America's highways without undue harassment," Conyers said.
Conyers spoke in May to the Detroit Bar Association about DWB and the legislation he has introduced that would require the U.S. Justice Department to study racial profiling by acquiring data from law enforcement agencies about the characteristics of people stopped for alleged traffic violations.
Conyers' bill was passed in the House by a voice vote. A similar bill is working its way through the Senate.
"One congressman from Baltimore threw his arm around me after the vote and said he had been stopped seven times in the last two years commuting between his hometown and Washington. He drives an expensive car; he dresses better than me; he fits the profile -- a drug lord," said Conyers.
Conyers, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said that suburbanites who doubt that racial profiling exists should check out their local traffic courts. "If you examine many of the suburban courtrooms, you would think that a third to a half of the population is black, because there are so many black citizens being stopped while driving," he said.
Conyers offered compelling data from three states to illustrate the problem. The Orlando Sentinel studied 140 hours of Florida State Police videotape of traffic stops. The paper found that 70 percent of those stopped on I-95 were African-American, even though blacks made up only 10 percent of drivers.
A court-ordered study in Maryland found that more than 70 percent of drivers stopped on I-95 were African-Americans. They made up 17.5 percent of the driver population.
Testimony in a New Jersey civil rights lawsuit indicated that minorities were nearly five times as likely as whites to be stopped for traffic violations along that state's turnpike.
Conyers said he has no concrete plans for the type of studies that need to be done on DWB, and that it is important to make the study as fair as possible.
"Every statistical study is subject to how fair and subjective it is. The only check that can come is from people who are complaining. We haven't figured out any lie-proof system," Conyers said. "But I'm pleased that the discussion itself has had an inhibiting effect on DWBs. This is how we make progress."