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Racial Profiling

This past Wednesday, the United States remembered the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s legendary “I have a dream…” speech. This country is a true melting pot for all people groups, but that has not come without a price. The term “racial profiling” has been a hot-button buzzword in Illinois and across the country for over a decade. In an attempt to curb abuses by law enforcement, many states have increased penalties for the few bad apples that spoil the bunch. Illinois requires police officers to track the race of each driver they stop. But like all things trucks, how to apply the racial profiling law to truck enforcement is not without controversy.

A little history: In 2003, former Illinois State Senator Barack Obama introduced SB0030 (later ratified as PA 93-0209) to combat potential racial profiling by police officers in exchange for primary enforcement of the seat belt law. The original law had a four-year shelf life from 01 January 2004 to 31 December 2007. It was then continued until 01 July 2010, and again extended until 01 July 2015.

There are many arguments for and against the racial profiling study. This article is not about to tread upon the politics or motives of racial profiling laws. That would be a futile exercise in ostracizing many people with whom this Association has built wonderful professional relationships. What this article will do however is expose the gaps in the law and it’s interpretation.

There is an age old myth that circulates police work and truck enforcement circles. This myth is that because truck law is so unique, voluminous and complicated, that it somehow is excepted from most other traditional police methodology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, truck enforcement is a niche area of law enforcement. Yes, truck law is a massive pile of regulations and statutes….but those things work only towards the understanding of the law. Other than the unique “reason to believe” burden for detecting overweight trucks, the application of all other truck laws is consistent with common police practice. The racial profiling law is no different. The implementation of the law as it pertains to trucks has some unique challenges, as described in the following paragraphs, but that does not pre-empt police officers from following solely because the drivers are operating trucks.

The law, 625 ILCS 5/11-212, requires police officers to record the race of the driver based on the officers “subjective determination” of what race the driver actually is. That is quite vague. Half of all police work is done during hours without sunlight, and even police officers with the best eyes are unable to determine the skin color of a driver until after a stop and contact has been made. In the best of lighting conditions, this problem is intensified with trucks. Ask a truck enforcement officer about seat belt violations with truck drivers. Sometimes it’s just plain impossible to tell based on the elevation of the driver and the seat position in relations to smoke stacks and mirrors. The same rings true when trying to determine the race of the truck driver before the stop is made.

In almost all situations, police officers must have probable cause to make traffic stops. This is an objective standard. The car was speeding. The pickup did not stop at a stop sign. The mini-van did not use a turn signal. This is not so with overweight enforcement. Police officers must have “reason to believe” a vehicle is overweight. The truck is not overweight and there is no violation until after the truck has been weighed and found to indeed be heavy.

But the law requires that a racial profiling card be completed every time a citation or warning is issued for a traffic violation. If a police officer has reason to believe the truck is overweight, weighs it and finds it to be legal weight, neither a citation nor warning can be issued because there has been no violation. Does this now exempt the police officer from the recording the racial profiling stats?

The answer is no it does not. A second paragraph in this statute requires the police to compile the same stats for any “alleged” violation even if a citation or warning is not issued. One could argue that “alleged” means there was indeed an objective violation, but the officer in his discretion did not issue a warning or citation. Another police officer could argue that “alleged” means “reason to believe”. Who’s right? Who knows.

To further complicate the issue, should police officers involved in truck enforcement have to record the race of each driver of every truck stopped during an “all trucks must weigh” roadblock? Are there exemptions in the state code for this? No.

What is clear is that the General Assembly could have simplified this statute by requiring police to complete racial profiling statistics for all stops of all motorists. This would eliminate arguments over what phrases like “subjective determination” or “alleged” truly mean.

In the end, the hope is that law enforcement in Illinois is not engaged in this practice and the few who are will be dealt with swiftly. The hope is that legislative intent for laws like this in the future can be vetted by a larger variety of professionals to guarantee the statue makes logistical sense. The hope is police officers justify their traffic stops from the actions, not the actors. Professionalism depends on it.

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