- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Law-enforcement officers taking part in a nationwide campaign to get drivers to wear their seat belts are setting up checkpoints aimed at Hispanics and handing out tickets — a tactic the ACLU says smacks of racial profiling.

Federal officials defend the checkpoints, saying Hispanics are less likely to buckle up because wearing seat belts is often not the law or custom in their countries of origin.

“Click It or Ticket” campaigns aimed at the general population began nationwide last week and run through Sunday. A separate program grants money for seat-belt campaigns in Hispanic neighborhoods. Both are funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Officials say the programs are educational, though drivers can be ticketed during stops.

Jose Ucles, the Hispanic public affairs specialist for the NHTSA, said Hispanics are targeted because they are not as accustomed to using seat belts as other groups. NHTSA said it does not have data on the percentage of Hispanics who buckle up.

“In the absence of any data, I would ask why are they targeting Latinos?” said King Downing, the national coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling. “Deciding to target certain areas based upon race goes right to the foundation of racial profiling.”

About 35 $50,000 grants have been given for Hispanic-targeted programs, said Lorraine Novak, a senior regional program manager for the NHTSA.

Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for Hispanics under 35, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials say they are focusing the money where the problem is.

“It’s not profiling, it’s targeting a specific population,” Miss Novak said.

Officials at Hispanic-targeted checkpoints — one is starting soon in Allentown, about 50 miles north of Philadelphia — stop every car and hand out information. Every 10th driver, for example, gets a more thorough inspection and could be cited.

“When we stop people we don’t pull them over because they look Hispanic or Latino. We pull them over because they’re No. 10, period,” said Allentown police Inspector Frank Peters.

But Mr. Downing of the ACLU said: “It’s not exactly a random driver if the area that is targeted is a Latino area.”

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