Police officers worth their salt know that failing to read a defendant his rights or follow proper procedures in gathering evidence can get an otherwise solid criminal case thrown out of court. And the Arizona Supreme Court last week ruled that racial profiling can also poison a case.
It's a welcome ruling that we would hope will make every law enforcement agency in Arizona reexamine policies — whether formal or unspoken — that make certain racial groups more susceptible to police stops than others.
As Capitol Media Services' Howard Fischer reported in the Tribune on Thursday, last week's ruling stems from three separate cases in which an African American and two Hispanics were stopped by Arizona Department of Public Safety officials on Interstate 17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff and later arrested on drug charges. The three claimed they were stopped because of their skin color, but a Yavapai County Superior Court judge ruled that was irrelevant to the drug charges.
The state Supreme Court's ruling goes to the constitutional principles of probable cause and equal protection of the laws; that is, unless police observe something that indicates a law is being violated — such as excessive speed or erratic driving — they cannot target someone simply because of skin color.
Significantly, the state high court waved off state prosecutors' contention that plaintiffs already can file suit in civil court claiming racial profiling. True, they said, but that's not enough.
This ruling did not determine that racial profiling had actually occurred in these three cases, but that racial profiling, if proven, would be grounds for throwing out the convictions. The three defendants still have to prove profiling was a factor in order to win their respective cases.
The ruling is welcome because of troubling reports in recent years that DPS officers had been targeting groups that fit certain “profiles.” The defendants in this case have indicated they will use findings from a study conducted by Northern Arizona's Social Research Laboratory of DPS traffic stops on state highways.
As Fischer reported, DPS earlier this year agreed to a series of changes stemming from complaints by 11 plaintiffs that they had been targets of racial profiling. Among the changes, DPS will equip 330 patrol cars with video cameras that record traffic stops. The videos will be available to motorists who are stopped, as well as to the general public.
Though DPS has acknowledged no wrongdoing, Eleanor Eisenberg, director of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said “There has been acknowledgement that there is a need for change.”
That change, prompted by the DPS settlement and enforced by last week's Arizona Supreme Court ruling, is change for the better.