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Profiles lose favor in drug interdiction Legal challenges say checklists target racial groups


Criminal profiling -- glamorized in movies and television and used in high-profile murder and rape cases -- has become a taboo phrase among drug interdiction detectives, tainted by claims of racial and ethnic bias.

Developed as a kind of checklist to spot drug couriers, such profiles have been the target of successful lawsuits in Maryland, New Jersey and elsewhere by groups contending that they unfairly target certain groups when it comes to drug searches.

"The word 'profile' is a loaded term," said Lawrence Sherman, a University of Maryland criminologist who developed a successful gun-seizure program using traffic enforcement techniques similar to ones used by Maryland State Police in drug seizures.

Police looking for drug couriers on highways, in airports and train stations now say that, instead of a mechanical profile, they use subtle "behavior cues" and develop probable cause in identifying drug suspects.

"We don't call them 'profiles,' " said Special Agent Larry Hornstein of the Maryland office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "Because of the lawsuits, the word has bad connotations."

But experts also say that the techniques now touted by police aren't much different from the elements in a typical profile.

That's because elements of probable cause -- facts and circumstances that would lead a reasonable person to think a crime was being committed -- often were found in the kind of profiles typically used by DEA and other agencies.

"They are backing away from it politically, but there is no case law that says they can't use profiles as long as they do not include any of the 'protected classes,' " such as racial groups, Sherman said.

Drug courier profiles came into vogue in the late 1970s, developed by the DEA and used at airports to stop passengers displaying behavior patterns consistent with drug couriers.

Such profiles were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989. But at the state level, civil liberties groups have continued to challenge profiles, saying they violate Fourth Amendment rights by targeting people on the basis of race and ethnicity.

In a motion filed last month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the American Civil Liberties Union accused state police of continuing to use race-based profiles to stop, detain and search motorists along a 44-mile stretch of Interstate 95 that is a notorious drug trafficking route.

Critics say profiles cast too wide a net, reining in not only criminals but innocent people who display similar behavior patterns -- such as paying for airline tickets with cash or driving a rental car along I-95.

"They sweep too broadly, and the challenge for police officers is to narrow them, and narrow down them objectively," said Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, dedicated to improving police service.

Susan Goering of the Maryland ACLU said a profile can become "a self-fulfilling prophecy" because of the stereotypes of the law enforcement officials using them.

"If there are the same amount of white and black people selling drugs at an airport and they search only blacks, of course the 'find rate' tends to prove their profile," she said.

Maryland State Police have steadfastedly denied using race-based profiles. Department officials have said it is a coincidence that 73 percent of their searches along the 44-mile stretch of I-95 from Baltimore County to the Delaware line between January 1995 and September 1996 were done on blacks.

The ACLU claims that, according to its survey, only about 16 percent of the motorists along that same stretch of road are black.

In the past year, the percentage of blacks and the number of searches along that stretch of highway have declined. The special unit of drug interdiction troopers has been disbanded because troopers were needed for patrol duties.

Sgt. Walter Landon, who teaches troopers drug interdiction and works from the Annapolis barracks, said drug courier profiles that include such things as cars used or even a degree of nervousness from a driver who has been stopped, have become stereotypical and outdated.

"As soon as they know what we know, they change things," he said of drug couriers. "So, if they know that we know they use rental cars or a specific type of car, they will switch to something else."

Because of this, state police do not use a specific checklist or a profile, Landon said.

"We have had to take it one step further and hone our skills rather than rely on these profiles of any kind," Landon said.

Troopers are taught how to develop probable cause in the training academy. Landon, during training sessions, reviews search and seizure laws, as well as recent Maryland case law, with interdiction troopers.

Drug interdiction on the highway typically begins with a traffic stop, he said. It's almost a game of luck -- a trooper happens upon a drug seizure that began with a motorist being stopped for speeding or other moving violation.

Take, for example, a 1995 case in which two troopers found 2.2 pounds of cocaine stashed under a panel in a car they stopped along I-95 in Cecil County because the driver was weaving in traffic, according to Sun reports on the incident.

The driver, a 19-year-old college student, told the trooper that she was weaving and nearly hit another car because she was distracted by a piece of chicken she was eating. She also said she was returning home after dropping her cousin off at college in Wilmington, Del.

But when the trooper asked which college, the driver did not know the name. She then changed her story, saying she took her cousin home, instead of back to college, and now was heading home to North Carolina.

Meanwhile, a male passenger in the car, who was shaking, told the trooper they spent the night at a rest stop. The female driver said they stayed at a cousin's house. And while the male passenger was supposed to be related to the cousin dropped off in Wilmington, he did not know her name.

The driver agreed to let troopers search the Pontiac Grand Am, where they found a Phillips screwdriver. Under the hood, one of the troopers found that a screw holding the air cleaner cover was loose. He off the lid and found the cocaine.

Police officers learn drug interdiction from experienced officers who have honed their skills during hundreds of drug arrests, law enforcement officials said. They learn what signals to look for and how to develop probable cause and then are expected to practice.

For example, experienced DEA agents working at airports or train stations have learned that paying for tickets with cash, using an alias, boarding a long flight without checking luggage or staying briefly in big cities known to be narcotics sources, are drug trafficking indicators and can be the basis to stop an airline passenger.

"There are so many things to look for," Hornstein said. "You have to be trained and attuned to it all in order to notice them."

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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