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The Daily Tar Heel

Court Takes Wrong Step On Profiling

In its opening days, the court refused an appeal by Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols and banned former president Bill Clinton from practicing before the body.

In a controversial move, the court also rejected an appeal from several black men who claimed police unconstitutionally targeted them during a search for a robbery suspect.

The case centered on a 1992 attack of an elderly woman in Oneonta, N.Y. The victim told police that her assailant was a young black man -- a conclusion she came to after a brief glimpse of her attacker's forearm and by listening to the pace of his footsteps, which she said was characteristic of a young man. She also said her assailant might have been cut during the attack. Using the woman's statements, police searched area hospitals for a young black man being treated for cuts. Finding no one, the police then obtained a list of all the black male students at a college near the alleged attack and questioned each one.

Once again, the search proved fruitless, so the police expanded their search to the area surrounding the woman's home. In all, 450 men were questioned about the attack.

No one was ever arrested.

Then-N.Y. Gov. Mario Cuomo and other state officials quickly apologized for the search. But 35 of the men sued the city and the New York Police Department, arguing the search violated the Fourth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.

However, the N.Y. federal courts dismissed the cases. In its ruling, the state's appeals court said the searches were legitimate because they were based on "a physical description given by the victim of the crime."

But the ruling allowed some of the men, who claimed the questioning also violated their right against unreasonable searches, to continue their lawsuits. The men appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Constitution does not allow police to target an entire minority community based on a victim's accusation.

On Monday, the court rejected the case, dealing what some call a major blow to the fight against racial profiling.

The decision is not unusual for the conservative-leaning court. The Supreme Court has failed to take a definitive stance on racial profiling. However, several cases in the past decade have given some indication as to the justices' feelings on the issue.

In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of statistics as evidence of racial discrimination. That same year, the body also said that in traffic citations, "the ulterior motives of police officers are irrelevant" if a justifiable reason is given for the stop. In that case, several black men were allegedly pulled over for pausing too long at a stop sign.

Five years later, the court has obviously decided that a victim's brief glimpse of her attacker's forearm is enough to justify searching more than 450 innocent men because their skin color makes them a possible suspect.

Although the case occurred several years ago, the issue of racial profiling has once again been thrust into the spotlight following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Recent polls show more Americans now support racial profiling if the actions might prevent future terrorist attacks.

While the nation is understandably on edge after the attacks, fear of retribution is no reason to ignore our constitutional right to equal treatment.

Both President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft have spoken out recently against racial profiling. I expected the court to follow their lead and speak out against racial profiling.

Instead, the court chose to steer away from this important issue. In a way, their decision to stay quiet speaks volumes.

By dismissing the Oneonta case, the court inadvertently has given a green light for any suspicion toward fellow citizens because their race is similar to that of the alleged terrorists.

That is not what our nation needs right now. We need leaders to proclaim that discrimination against our fellow citizens because of their race will not be tolerated. In recent weeks, the president and other government officials have stepped up to the plate and spoken against racial profiling.

Now it is the Supreme Court's time.

Columnist April Bethea can be reached at adbethea@email.unc.edu.

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