NEWARK, N.J. -- The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey today filed a lawsuit on behalf of Willie Nevius, an African American driver who was improperly stopped and searched on the New Jersey Turnpike.
"I felt humiliated by this experience," said Nevius, a 38-year-old man who currently resides in North Carolina. "I didn't do anything wrong, and there was nothing wrong with my car, so the police stopped me for only one reason: I am a black man."
As explained in the ACLU-NJ complaint, on the afternoon of December 9, 2006, Nevius was driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike from Middlesex County in his work van when he was stopped by state troopers.
When Nevius asked why he was stopped, a trooper told him he had an inoperative tail light, but would not then let Nevius examine the light. Numerous officers arrived and interrogated Nevius at length on issues unrelated to the stop -- such as questions about his van and his destination.
Without justification, the officers asked for consent to search his vehicle and, after the search began, they ignored Nevius' requests to stop the search. The officers then took apart the carpeting and interior of his van, riffled through his possessions and left them in disarray.
The search did not reveal contraband or evidence of any crime. After the search, Nevius checked the back of his car and saw that his tail lights were both working. When he mentioned this to the police officer, the officer laughed. He then issued Nevius a "warning" ticket for the alleged inoperative tail light.
"The rate of stops of African American drivers on portions of the New Jersey Turnpike are as high now as they were when New Jersey's attorney general first admitted that racial profiling was 'real, not imagined,'" said noted civil rights lawyer William Buckman of Moorestown, who represents Nevius pro bono for the ACLU-NJ.
"Despite the fact that the state police are already subject to a consent decree requiring federal monitoring, racial profiling continues in New Jersey," Buckman said. "This behavior will persist until we address the culture within the state police that allows these discriminatory actions to take place -- and until we have transparency so the public is getting all the facts."
The ACLU-NJ lawsuit challenges the stop itself, as well as other factors regarding the stop, including the alleged consent to search. Police officers cannot request consent to search unless they have a reasonable suspicion that there is evidence of a crime in the car. The ACLU-NJ also challenges the police officers' refusal to stop searching when Nevius asked them to, and how the search was conducted. These claims are based on the right under the federal and state constitutions of all people to equal treatment and to be free from unreasonable searches by the police, as well as rights under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.
Governor Jon Corzine in August 2006 established an Advisory Committee on Police Standards, which has held numerous hearings over the past year to address racial profiling and make recommendations. Buckman, as well as ACLU-NJ staff and clients, testified before the committee regarding the need for professional licensing and external oversight of both the State Police and local police departments.
The ACLU-NJ has been at the forefront of fighting against racial discrimination and in 2003 successfully represented 12 individuals who had been targeted based on skin color while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The most recent lawsuit, Nevius v. New Jersey State Police, was filed in U.S. District Court in Camden.