ACLU files racial profiling lawsuit against Michigan State Police

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan Wednesday filed a lawsuit on behalf of a couple who said they were stopped by Michigan State Police troopers in Oak Park and detained for nearly two hours as their vehicle was searched for drugs by two K-9 units.

Camara Sankofa, 50, and Shanelle Thomas, 35, were falsely accused of running a red light and profiled because of their race, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit.

Sankofa, a Detroit resident, said Wednesday during a virtual news conference hosted by the ACLU that he and Thomas were stopped simply for being Black. The two were pulled over on East Eight Mile near Coolidge in Oak Park by troopers about 3:20 p.m. on Aug. 15, 2019. The lawsuit alleges the troopers used an alleged MSP's computer system malfunction as a ruse to bring two different K-9 units to search the vehicle Sankofa was driving, according to the lawsuit.

The ACLU claims thousands of other Black motorists in the state are being racially profiled in traffic stops and that MSP has been "willfully ignoring" a record of racially disparate traffic stops for years.

Sankofa said he "did nothing wrong" and the troopers had no probable cause to pull him over.

"There was no reason why I should have been pulled over other than driving while Black," said Sankofa, an educator, who said he knows "good" police work and has a "deep appreciation" for law enforcement but also believes police have "too much power in America."

The ACLU claims the couple's experience mirrors that of thousands of other Black motorists in the state and that MSP has been "willfully ignoring" a record of racially disparate traffic stops for years. MSP, according to Mark Fancher, an attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project, has failed to correct practices and policies that cause racial profiling or to hire an expert to analyze its policies and practices. 

The director of the Michigan State Police, Joseph Gasper, and troopers Matthew Rose, Richard Birmingham and Adam Kusch are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

MSP officials in a Wednesday statement said the department is "committed to the equitable treatment of all persons" and to providing services and enforcing the law in a "professional, just and non-discriminatory manner."

"Longstanding department policies prohibit members from stopping or detaining anyone based solely on their race, ethnicity or possible immigration status. Allegations of improper traffic stops are taken seriously," the statement reads. "If a trooper is accused of stopping a motorist without proper grounds, a thorough and objective internal investigation is conducted."

Thomas, also of Detroit, said she was humiliated by the traffic stop and that she and Sankofa were targeted by the troopers because they are Black.

"We were racially profiled," Thomas said Wednesday. "These kinds of racist police encounters happen all the time. Our situation is not unique. We had no warrants, no tickets, no paperwork to hide. I'm here to call this what it is – racist policing."

Sankofa and Thomas, who now works in the human services field and attends graduate school, were detained for one hour and 58 minutes while the K-9 units searched the vehicle for drugs, and none were found, the lawsuit states.

When Sankofa told a trooper he did not have drugs, the trooper, identified as Defendant A, allegedly said, "We'll see." 

During the search, Sankofa and Thomas were interrogated and asked a wide range of questions "many having no relevance to the stop," according to the lawsuit. Fancher said the couple was not given any tickets or citations.

"Although the law required that they be detained no longer than required to issue a ticket, they were detained for nearly two hours by multiple Michigan State Police troopers, who unsuccessfully attempted to find a crime for which they could charge (Sankofa and Thomas)," according to the lawsuit.

"The troopers are doing something in their daily routine that cause these disparities," said Fancher Wednesday. "We just want to fix the problem."

Fancher said MSP has turned to Michigan State University researchers instead of working with "experts" who have been studying the issue and collecting data on driving while Black complaints.

Since 2016, the ACLU has heard from other Black motorists who have given "remarkably similar" complaints about MSP traffic stops that involved questionable reasons, where drivers are questioned about drugs once stopped and police dogs are used to search vehicles, said Fancher.

The ACLU of Michigan has alerted MSP and Gasper to the issue, Fancher said, and he added that he has met personally with Gasper.

The lawsuit adds that MSP’s own recent reports reveal that while traffic stops by troopers decreased between 2017 and 2019, stops for African Americans increased during that same period.

While African Americans make up only 14% of Michigan's population, they accounted for 17% of all MSP traffic stops in 2017, 19% in 2018, and 20% in 2019, according to the lawsuit.

The department said in its statement that based on prior ACLU requests, it modified its reporting system in January 2017 to capture race data from traffic stops. With three years of data in hand, the department selected two researchers from the MSU School of Criminal Justice for a five-phase data analysis project.

“The ACLU of Michigan’s intentional misrepresentation of our efforts and their continual insistence on pushing their own agenda, which includes contracting with a sole practitioner of their choosing, works only toward furthering the divide between public and law enforcement and is preventing real progress,” the statement said.

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @oralandar_dn