Target Practice

A class-action suit becomes a vehicle for racial justice.

Janice and Jhenita Whitfield were crossing the Western Slope, en route from San Diego to Denver, when they were pulled over for Driving While Black.

Jhenita had been living in California with her sister, an operations technician with the Navy, for seven months. Now, on this cold spring morning in 1989, she and her three young children were headed home, and Janice had taken a brief leave in order to help with the long drive.

Janice was behind the wheel of the green Subaru as it passed through Grand Junction on Interstate 70. On the eastern outskirts of town, traffic in the middle lane began to slow, and the sisters spotted an Eagle County Sheriff's Department cruiser parked on the shoulder. Janice checked her speed -- she was going under 60 miles per hour -- and passed the cruiser. Minutes later, in her rear-view mirror, she saw that the squad car was now following her.

The Subaru belonged to Jhenita. It was paid for, the insurance was current, and Jhenita had no outstanding tickets. Yet when Janice signaled and entered the left lane, so did the cruiser. When she signaled and returned to the center lane, so did the cruiser. Then the cruiser's lights started flashing, and the Whitfields were pulled over.

One of the two troopers in the cruiser, Sergeant James Perry, got out and approached the Subaru. Twice he asked Janice where she was going. Denver, she said. Twice. He took her license and Jhenita's registration and went back to his car to run them through his computer. When he returned, Perry asked Janice to step out of the car. Colorado's mountain counties were having problems with drugs from California being transported through the state, he explained. And the Subaru had California plates: Jhenita had bought the car in San Diego.

"There were people flying past, and they didn't get stopped," Janice Whitfield remembers. "I followed two cars from California, and they didn't get stopped."

But those other drivers were white.

The Whitfields are black, and now here was Perry asking if he could search the car. If they said no, Janice worried that the trip might be delayed -- she had only a few days to get to Denver and then fly back to San Diego with her young daughter, who was also in the car. But it was Jhenita's vehicle, so Jhenita had to decide whether to give permission for a search.

"If I say no now," Jhenita recalls thinking, "they may stop us farther down the road." So she consented -- as most people do when stopped by law-enforcement officers.

Perry signaled for the other officer to come help with the search. For the next 45 minutes, the Whitfield sisters and their kids stood in the cold by the side of the busy interstate. Cars whizzed by, sometimes spraying them with dirt. Jhenita's daughter, at age three the oldest of the children, was crying because she had to go to the bathroom and they were stuck on the shoulder.

Jhenita approached the second officer, who hadn't said a word so far, and asked why they had been stopped. He told her she fit the profile.

The officers made the Whitfields remove everything from the trunk, including three large suitcases and assorted baby supplies. They opened and searched the suitcases. They checked under the seats, in the glove compartment, in the ashtray. They pulled up the mats. They searched under the car. One officer stuck his hand in the empty tape player.

They found nothing. Janice was given a warning for making an illegal lane change (she'd failed to signal 200 feet before changing lanes, the deputies said), and the Whitfields were sent on their way.

As they drove away, Jhenita felt degraded. Later, she was furious. Later still, she began feeling paranoid -- a feeling that to this day she can't shake. Still a Denver resident, she no longer drives across state lines. On the occasional short trip to Black Hawk or Central City, she constantly checks her rear-view mirror. A few years ago, she even refused to fly out of state, missing her grandmother's funeral. She knows police are in the airport, she explains, "and they can stop me, and I can't do anything about it."

The Eagle County experience didn't shake Janice as much -- but the fact that she serves her country in the military made the law-enforcement stop especially galling. "I never thought I'd be a victim of profiling," she says. "I pay taxes. I didn't do anything wrong."


At a November hearing on a class-action suit that includes the Whitfields as plaintiffs, U.S. District Court Judge John Kane called racial profiling the major civil-rights issue of this millennium.

Yet racial profiling is hardly a new phenomenon. While the term's historic roots date to federal programs created in the '80s to ferret out drug traffickers along America's interstates, people of color say that law-enforcement authorities have been making selective stops based on nothing more than race for generations. Back in 1967, at hearings held by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more than a hundred witnesses testified regarding the causes of the riots that had swept through American cities that summer; their testimony included complaints that African-Americans were being stopped in cars or on foot for no apparent reason -- other than the color of their skin.

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