- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 23, 2007

Janice Rogers Brown, a conservative black circuit court judge appointed by President Bush over Democrats’ objections, argued vehemently yesterday against police use of “generic racial descriptions” as justification for stopping people during an investigation.

Judge Brown wrote the dissenting opinion to a 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a case involving Metropolitan Police officers who stopped four black men standing outside a gas station. The officers had been searching for a man who fled a traffic stop two blocks away. Their only description of the original suspect was a black male, about 5‘8,” weighing 180 pounds and wearing a black coat and blue jeans.

Judge Brown argued that abuse of the legal standard for police stops “offends the principle of equal justice” in minority neighborhoods.

“By the district court’s logic, police would have been able to stop virtually every casually dressed black man within a 16-block radius of the crime,” Judge Brown wrote. “In the crime-plagued, violence-prone, drug-ridden reality of our urban centers, is reasonable suspicion too high a threshold; is it too much to ask?”

Still, the court upheld the legality of the police stop. It resulted in one man’s conviction for possession of a handgun, even though he was never identified as the suspect from the original police call.

The majority — Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg and Judge David S. Tatel — reasoned that there was reasonable suspicion to stop the men at the gas station. The men were all wearing black coats and blue jeans, like the suspect police were searching for, but they had varied heights.

The judges ruled the police stop actually occurred not when the officers pulled into the gas station, but when they suspected one of the men, Melvin Goddard, had a gun. Goddard held his waistband “like he was holding … a gun,” according to the police account, and one of the officers overheard Goddard say he had a gun.

That’s when one of the officers yelled “gun” and they began searching the four men.

“The officers had plenty of reason to suspect Goddard had a weapon, which Goddard himself concedes would justify a stop,” the majority wrote.

Judge Brown objected to the basis of Goddard’s conviction on the firearms charge but acknowledged it followed recent court trends.

Still, she argued, police should have some other basis for detaining people besides race and location.

“It is not enough to share the same racial characteristics as a suspect and be in the vicinity,” Judge Brown wrote. “For, as we all know, courts would not approve the search of four men in business attire, conversing peaceably in front of a Starbucks, if the only basis for the search was a ‘lookout’ broadcast specifying a white man, medium height and build, wearing a business suit.”