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John Whitehead's Commentary

Profiling Promotes Discrimination, Not Protection

John Whitehead
The next time you travel by airplane or automobile, you may be delayed-not because of cancelled flights or road construction but because you fit a profile of a drug trafficker or terrorist. Truly, it could and does, happen to people from all walks of life, especially African-Americans, Arabs, or Hispanics. The lists of characteristics, or profiles, used by law enforcement officials to profile drug traffickers or terrorists are discriminatory. In fact, they are often a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure.

When we think of a criminal suspect, we often think of someone "different" from ourselves, whether it is in the way they dress, act, or in the color of their skin. However, with the extensive profiles that have now been developed, we are all at risk of random arrest simply because of what we are wearing, what we are driving, or with whom we are traveling. According to Georgetown University law professor David Cole, the list of characteristics used by law enforcement officers to identify drug traffickers includes: arriving somewhere late at night, early in the morning or afternoon; being one of the first to deplane, the last to deplane or deplaning in the middle; buying a first-class ticket or buying a coach ticket; using a one-way ticket or using a round-trip ticket; traveling with a companion or alone; and wearing expensive clothing or dressing casually. This extensive lists targets practically every passenger on a commercial airline, but race is noticeably absent.

Officially, it is unlikely that race would be included in a profile leading to a suspect's arrest or detention because it would set off alarms of racism and discrimination. However, profiles are "often a pretext for racially discriminatory conduct," as it was with Lawrence Boze. While at the Los Angeles airport, Boze, who is a well-known attorney and former president of the National Bar Association, was escorted from a ticket counter to an airport security area and detained. He was searched, his bags were inspected, and he was interrogated as to his identity, where he was going and why he was traveling. Boze's repeated demands for an explanation of why he was being detained and searched went unanswered, except when told that he "matched the profile." Mr. Boze is an African-American.

As is Patricia Appleton, a travel agent from Chicago, who has been repeatedly stopped and searched-even strip-searched-by United States Customs Service inspectors upon returning from Caribbean vacations. Her "crime" was traveling alone, being well-dressed, and being black. Appleton, who was stripped, forced to bend over and grab her ankles, and searched, equated the "humiliation and vulnerability" she felt then to when she was "brutally raped" when she was 15 years old. Sadly, her experience was not unique. Along with a group of 84 African-American women, she has filed a class action suit against the U.S. Customs Service, alleging discriminatory race-based profiling.

Proponents of "profiling" maintain that it is a "perfectly legitimate investigative tool that should not be condemned merely because some law enforcement officers improperly use it. According to a survey by an ABA Journal/National Bar Association Magazine, white lawyers are more in favor of profiling than black attorneys. More likely, the black attorneys, like Boze, understand the unjust and unofficial factor in profiling-race.

Discriminatory profiling is not limited to the airways. It extends to the highways, where certain drivers are routinely stopped based on certain characteristics. In Maryland, the ACLU filed a class-action suit on behalf of the Maryland NAACP and 11 African-American motorists who were stopped and detained for what some call the "offense" of "driving while black." Blacks are not the only minority targeted in discriminatory profiling; Hispanics are often victims as well. Caucasians, however, are noticeably exempt from this racial profiling, unless, of course, these Caucasians belong to a motorcycle gang. According to the former New Jersey State Police superintendent, Col. Carl A. Williams, "it is mostly a minority group involved with [cocaine or marijuana]," but the methamphetamine market "seems to be controlled by motorcycle gangs, which are basically predominantly white". (Williams was subsequently fired for his remarks.)

On the pretext of protecting us from drug smugglers or terrorists, law enforcement officials are routinely detaining and searching people, based merely on an arbitrary list of characteristics. But this leaves me to wonder who is protecting us and our Fourth Amendment rights from them?

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His most recent books are the best-selling Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and a debut dystopian fiction novel, The Erik Blair Diaries. Whitehead can be contacted at Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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