The R.I. ACLU today announced the settlement of its racial profiling lawsuit against the Scituate Police Department in a case in which the ACLU alleged that Pawtucket resident Jean Philippe Barros, a person of Cape Verdean descent, was the victim of racial profiling when he was stopped, questioned and ticketed. Without acknowledging any wrongdoing, the Town has agreed to pay Barros $10,500. Last October, a federal jury cleared the police, but the ACLU appealed, challenging significant restrictions on the evidence that the judge allowed the jury to consider. As a result of the settlement, the appeal is being dismissed.
The lawsuit, filed in 2003 by ACLU volunteer attorney Thomas G. Briody, argued that Barros’ rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and to equal protection of the laws were violated when he was pulled over by Scituate police officer Kevin Pendergast for not having a Rhode Island inspection sticker. That the car lacked such a sticker was not surprising since Barros was driving his sister’s car, which had Missouri license plates. When Barros asked the officer if he was stopped because of his race, the officer, though having had no basis for pulling Barros over, demanded to see his license, registration and proof of insurance. When Barros was initially unable to find the registration, he was given a citation even though he found the document while the officer was still there. The officer also gave him a citation for driving without insurance. Both of the charges were later dismissed in court.
Barros claimed that the officer looked directly at him before pulling out behind him and tailing him, but at trial, the officer argued that he was not aware of Barros’ skin color until he pulled him over. Pendergast also stated that it was his practice to demand license, registration and insurance information from all drivers, even those wrongly stopped. However, state law specifically limits any demand for insurance papers to Rhode Island-registered vehicles.
The ACLU appeal challenged rulings made by U.S. District Judge Mary Lisi during the course of the trial that limited the evidence heard by the jury. For example, the judge refused to allow the jury to hear testimony from the police chief acknowledging that Pendergast’s demand for the information violated departmental policy. Also excluded was evidence of the state law that authorizes insurance information only for vehicles registered in Rhode Island.
ACLU attorney Briody said today: “I am pleased that the Town has partially compensated Mr. Barros for the indignity that he suffered during the disputed traffic stop. We believe this suit has had a positive impact on the police department and its practices.” Barros added: “I am relieved that I have gotten some vindication, and that the police chief has acknowledged that steps have been taken to address racial profiling issues by the department.”