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On a dark road, holiday's peace is broken

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 7, 2003


It was another one of those firsts that newlyweds experience. There's the first meal in their first apartment. There's the first trip to the grocery store together. The first night spent at the parents' home.

For Spencer and Jameelah Ferrell, two days away from their first wedding anniversary, the trip from their home in Atlanta to her mother's home in Miami was their first major road trip together. They had covered the distance by plane before, but this was their first time driving.

Jameelah says now it may also have been the last.

Just south of Valdosta, Ga., they may have experienced another first as a married couple.

The Ferrells give this account of events:

After gassing up in Valdosta about 2 a.m. Dec. 27, they noticed several Lowndes County Sheriff's Office cruisers in the median as they resumed their trip south on I-75. Spencer said he slowed to about 60 mph to make sure he was not exceeding the 70 mph speed limit. He said he also moved to the slow lane.

Despite those precautions, a cruiser pulled out behind him, and soon the Ferrells were parked on the side of the road with lights flashing behind them. Spencer, a 31-year-old advertising consultant with Verizon Wireless, was ordered to get out of the car and move to the rear. Jameelah, 24, a librarian, rolled down her window so she could hear what was being said.

"The first thing that came to my mind was racial profiling, and I didn't want them to beat him up," she said.

For black motorists, seeing an officer of the law parked beside the highway causes anxiety. Being pulled over by one brings nightmarish outcomes into view. In the isolation of a dark highway, black men fear, with personal and historical justification, that they are one wrong word, one wrong move or one officer's bad day away from a Rodney King experience.

The Ferrells say that for an hour they stood in the cold and answered questions that insulted their integrity and implied they were criminals and drug users. Jameelah was particularly offended by questions that doubted their marital status. Having nothing to hide and fearing the consequences of refusing, they signed forms giving the four deputies permission to search their car.

After an hour, Spencer was issued a warning for failure to stay in his lane and they were allowed to continue on their way to Miami.

The Sheriff's Office account, from Capt. J.D. Yeager, who is second in command of the agency, does not differ substantially from the Ferrells'. They diverge primarily in viewpoint and degree. For instance, Ferrell's reflexive slowing -- to 57 mph in a 70 mph zone -- at the sight of sheriff's cruisers in the median raises a flag of suspicion for deputies, said Yeager, who added that he trained most of the deputies. "That would get my attention," he said, but wouldn't be sufficient reason for a stop.

The questions the Ferrells found offensive? Most were standard in such situations, others were necessary for the search consent form, Yeager said.

He concluded that the stop was legal and that his deputies' actions were justified.

Any notions of excesses, or the inappropriate conduct the Ferrells charge, therefore, enter the realm of their word against the deputies', a stalemate that in the absence of videotape favors the deputies. Although each cruiser is equipped with a camera, Yeager said the tape from that stop is no longer available. He said the tape is kept only in cases in which there is criminal activity or the likelihood of a complaint.

Yeager said the officer who made the stop "said that he received no resistance from the Ferrells and had no reason to believe that they were upset." Besides, videotape is expensive. The Ferrells called the department when they reached Miami a few hours after the stop and lodged their complaint orally and informed the commander on duty that a written version would -- and did -- follow. But Yeager said the videotape was already rewound by that time and erased by the recording of the deputy's next stop.

In an e-mailed response to the St. Petersburg Times after he reviewed the complaint, Yeager declared, "This stop, nor any other in Lowndes County, is based on a profile. We do not believe there is such a profile where criminal activity is concerned. No one can be exempted from the possibility of being involved in criminal activity."

Still, it strains my imagination to picture a newlywed white couple -- both clean-cut college graduates with substantial careers -- standing in the cold while deputies imply they're using or transporting drugs and rummage through their underwear and toiletries. It stretches the imagination to think they would have even been stopped on flimsy reasons barely sufficient to make the stop legal. My suspicion is that the deputies would have observed a truer threshold of probable cause that something unlawful was taking place.

This column is not an indictment of Lowndes County. Georgia's ACLU gets an average of 12 complaints daily on its profiling hotline. That, of course, is not a true representation of the number of cases in which some version of racial profiling is suspected. Many, like the Ferrells, don't call the hotline. Georgia, unlike some states, including Florida, doesn't require its law officers to record the race of people it stops, so tracking any trend in the state is virtually impossible. A bill that would mandate such tracking passed in the state Senate in 2000 but failed in the House.

This is not an indictment of Georgia, either. Profiling is a national phenomenon. A study by the legal system watchdog Criminal Justice Policy Foundation reported in 1999 that 76 percent of motorists stopped along a 50-mile stretch of I-95 in Maryland were black in a state where only 20 percent of the licensed drivers are. In New Jersey in 2001, a state police investigator told a crowd attending a hearing on profiling that 94 percent of the motorists stopped in one town were minorities.

This column is a condemnation of a practice that offends the spirit and in many cases the letter of the Constitution, which intends for the state and its various arms to stay out of the lives of private citizens until they break the law or infringe on the rights of other citizens.

A deputy in Valdosta, Ga., with a hunch, or a prejudice, or a suspicion, or some excuse he stretched to get, is not justified in intruding in the lives of a young couple trying to enjoy the holiday season, no matter what color they are.

Flimsy excuses after the fact may make it legal, but they hardly make it right.

Is videotape really that expensive?

-- To reach Elijah Gosier, call (727) 893-8650 or e-mail gosier@sptimes.com.

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