OOIDA member sues New Mexico troopers for racial profiling

| 5/20/2009

Looking around the port of entry office, Curtis Blackwell noticed something common among the drivers waiting to talk to officers at the Port of Entry in Lordsburg, NM.

Like him, most of the other drivers were black.

Blackwell had been placed out of service for 24 hours after police found unopened beer and liquor in his truck’s tool box accessible from outside the truck. The officer accused him of being on drugs, and made him go through a series of sobriety tests on that mid-August day in 2008.

Blackwell – a veteran of the road for more than 40 years – said tension between truckers and officers at the Port of Entry was palpable.

“Coming from L.A., I can tell when a cop is trying to get me,” Blackwell told Land Line. “I thought, ‘They’re only pulling over black drivers!’ ”

Blackwell, OOIDA Member from Altadena, CA, filed a lawsuit against the New Mexico Motor Transportation Division in early May. The suit names three state troopers for allegedly targeting commercial vehicles driven by black drivers for inspections, searches and detentions in Lordsburg.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in New Mexico, and seeks compensatory and punitive damages, the removal of an alcohol citation from Blackwell’s record, and a declaration that the citation is unconstitutional.

The state wouldn’t comment specifically on any pending litigation, but no state officer is allowed to racially profile, said Peter Olson, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, the state department that oversees the New Mexico Motor Transportation Division.

“We don’t allow profiling based on ethnicity, gender or any other factors,” Olson told Land Line. “They’re trained to be professional and enforce the laws in the motor vehicle code unilaterally.”

Blackwell was stopped at the port of entry on Aug. 15, 2008. While other trucks were waived through, Blackwell said he was told to park under a port of entry tent and wait. After some time, officers did an inspection of the truck’s lights, brakes and interior of the trailer and sleeper.

ACLU attorney Michael Lilley said in a statement they’ve uncovered evidence that state officers in the Lordsburg division stopped and booked a disproportionately high number of black truckers compared with the general population of truck drivers passing through the port of entry.

“For years we’ve suspected that race played an improper role in vehicle inspections at the Lordsburg station,” Lilley said. “Mr. Blackwell’s experience confirmed our suspicions and gave us reason to look into the matter in depth. What we discovered was a clear and consistent pattern of racial disparity favoring the booking of African-American truck drivers.”

According to Hidalgo County (NM) Detention Center records, between April 2005 and March 2008, 20 percent of all arrestees booked by Motor Transportation Division officers at the detention center were black, while blacks represented only 2 percent of bookings by other law enforcement agencies.

“Virtually every truck driver charged criminally in federal court who was arrested by an MTD officer stationed in Lordsburg is African American/Black,” the lawsuit states.

Civil rights has long been a thorny issue with truck drivers, who often feel like authorities treat them like “second class citizens.” Last week, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association filed a lawsuit on behalf of drivers hassled by Minnesota’s enforcement of a “driver fatigue checklist.”

“Drivers have lamented for a long time that their civil rights are under assault,” OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz told Land Line. “These two lawsuits should be a real wakeup call to law enforcement agencies around the country – that this is not tolerable behavior in a free society.”

Soon after noticing the majority of detained drivers were black on that August day, Blackwell asked the drivers for their names and phone numbers.

Blackwell, who began his trucking career in 1967, hopes the lawsuit will remove the citation from his record and reimburse him for increased insurance expenses since the violation.

More importantly, Blackwell says, he hopes the lawsuit will protect drivers from discrimination in the future, at least at the Lordsburg Port of Entry.

“That’s the whole purpose of this thing,” Blackwell said. “As truck drivers, we go through enough as it is.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer