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Judge Robert Wilkins Successfully Sued Md. State Police for Racial Profiling

Judge Robert Wilkins

By Nedra Pickle

A federal judge President Barack Obama wants to promote to the appellate bench successfully sued the Maryland State Police for racial profiling after his family was pulled over and searched for drugs while driving back from a funeral.

The 1992 search has been at the center of two decades of litigation that’s become known as the “driving while black” case. U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins has shown an unyielding effort to combat racial profiling in drug stops through three subsequent lawsuits, the final one ultimately decided just this year.

Wilkins, whom Obama nominated to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has said his family’s roadside detention for an eventual search by a drug-sniffing dog was a “humiliating and degrading experience” and he’s been determined to use the courts to prevent it from happening to others.

The Wilkins stop came on May 8, 1992, during an all-night road trip home from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. His cousin Scott El-Amin was driving in their rented Cadillac, and his uncle and his uncle’s wife were also in the car. Wilkins has said they were hurrying because they were all due at work in the morning – Wilkins, then a public defender in Washington, had a court appearance scheduled.

The family was stopped by a trooper who said they were going 60 mph in a 40 mph zone, and El-Amin was cited for speeding. They declined the trooper’s request to search their car and were told as a consequence they would have to wait for a canine search. As Wilkins tells it, the officer mentioned something about “problems with rental cars coming up and down the highway with drugs.”

Wilkins said he identified himself as a public defender and cited Supreme Court precedent that they could not be held for a dog search without a reasonable suspicion they were carrying drugs. But Wilkins said the family was made to stand in the rain while the German shepherd sniffed over the car and found nothing, while the delay caused him to miss his court appearance, according to an account he provided at a 2009 world conference on racism held at the United Nations in Switzerland.

“It is hard to describe the frustration and pain you feel when people presume you to be guilty for no good reason and you know that you are innocent,” Wilkins said in remarks prepared for delivery at the conference.

Wilkins noted the stop came the same week as the Los Angeles riots in response to the police beating of Rodney King. “This was a time when black people all over the United States were asking themselves whether the country was making tangible progress in fighting racial discrimination and whether the country’s vaunted legal system was truly equipped and able to right these wrongs. We decided to take legal action,” he said.

Their suit was settled was settled in 1995. The Maryland State Police paid $50,000 to the four family members, $46,000 in attorney fees and banned racial profiling in drug stops. It required record keeping for all traffic stops with a narcotics dog, monitoring by a federal judge, training for troopers on the new policy and discipline for those who violated it.

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