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Appeal Filed in “Driving While Black” Lawsuit Against Westerly Police

Posted: July 17, 2003|Category: Discrimination Category: Racial/Ethnic Discrimination Category: Police Practices

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In a brief filed this week, the ACLU of Rhode Island has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit Court of Appeals to allow its “racial profiling” lawsuit to proceed against the Town of Westerly on behalf of a 50-year old African-American man, Ashaway resident Bernard Flowers, who was stopped in his car and detained at gunpoint by town police. The appeal, filed by ACLU volunteer attorney Thomas G. Briody, claims that the district court erred when it ruled that the police had sufficient grounds to warrant a “felony car stop” of Mr. Flowers.

The incident started with a report to Westerly police from a town resident. The resident claimed that someone had told him that a third person was going to send “two black males to his house with a gun.” The resident reported having seen a “small gray or black colored vehicle” occupied by “two black males” drive slowly by his home. He provided no other description of the men or the vehicle. Some thirty minutes later, Mr. Flowers was driving his gray car through town some two miles away from the scene of the report. Relying solely on that vague report, and despite the fact that Mr. Flowers was the only occupant in the car, police pulled him over and then executed what the police called a “felony car stop."

While the first officer waited for back-up, Mr. Flowers was ordered over a loud speaker to stay in his car. When back-up arrived, Mr. Flowers was ordered to step out of his car while several officers, crouching behind opened police car doors, pointed loaded weapons at him. Mr. Flowers began having chest pains at that point, realizing that, as he puts it, “with any error of movement they would shoot me dead.” He was made to turn his back toward the officers with the loaded weapons pointed at him and walk backwards. He was then handcuffed and ordered to his knees while several officers searched his car. Finding nothing, the police released him. Not only did the police offer no apologies, they would not even assist Mr. Flowers in trying to telephone his wife. Rather, he was left to his own devices on the side of the road. He drove himself to Westerly Hospital for the chest pains he was experiencing. He was medicated there and then released.

The ACLU’s brief notes that police abandoned the search for the two mysterious “black males,” and questions whether “based on the information provided…that there was ever any serious concern that a crime had been or was about to be committed.” As the appeal states, “The call that caused an innocent 50 year old man to be handcuffed face down in the road – at the business end of a shotgun – slipped away in a late September breeze.”

Calling the “high risk” stop an “outrageous abuse of police power … unsupported by articulable suspicion,” the brief closes by noting: “The first – and only – person that [the police] stopped was the first black man to drive by. As hunches go, this one was shamefully weak. It should not provide a basis for stopping an innocent man.”

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