Driving While Black

Halifax Regional Police Service v. Johnson (No. 1) (2003), 48 C.H.R.R. D/307 (N.S. Bd.Inq.)

A Nova Scotia Board of Inquiry found that the Halifax Regional Police Service discriminated against Kirk Johnson on the basis of race when a police officer stopped Mr. Johnson and his cousin while they were driving, fined Mr. Johnson and towed away his car.

In April 1998 Earl Fraser and Kirk Johnson, who are both black, were pursued on Highway 111 by Constable Sanford and stopped at a shopping plaza just off Main Street in Dartmouth. Mr. Fraser was driving Mr. Johnson's Texas-registered 1993 black Ford Mustang. The Constable asked for proof of insurance and vehicle registration but was not satisfied with the documents offered. He ticketed Mr. Fraser, and ordered the car towed. In fact, Mr. Johnson's documentation was valid under Texas law. The seizure was erroneous and the car was released the following day.

Mr. Johnson filed a human rights complaint alleging that he was pulled over and harassed because he is a black man, and that the incident was an example of racial profiling by the police. Mr. Johnson is a well-known athlete, one of the top heavyweight boxers in the world. He lives and trains in Texas, but his family is in the Halifax-Dartmouth area and he visits regularly.

At issue in the complaint was whether: (1) the decision to pursue the vehicle; (2) the failure to assess properly the documentation offered by Mr. Fraser and Mr. Johnson; (3) the decision to tow the vehicle; (4) the level of police response; and (5) the treatment by Constable Sanford of the two men as criminals or potential criminals were acts of race discrimination.

The Board of Inquiry found as a fact that Constable Sanford was able to and did observe the race of the occupants of the vehicle before he stopped it. The race of the men in the car confirmed his suspicion that something was amiss. When the car was stopped and Mr. Fraser was asked for documents, the Board of Inquiry found that Constable Sanford did not engage in a fair process to evaluate the information he was given regarding the insurance and vehicle registration. Though Mr. Johnson's documents were proper and complied with Texas law, Constable Sanford refused to accept them, and refused to permit Mr. Johnson, who was not driving but knew more about the documents since it was his car, to explain what they were and what was required in Texas. The Board of Inquiry found that Constable Sanford's treatment of Fraser and Johnson was infected by a racial stereotype of black male criminality. This resulted in Mr. Johnson and Mr. Fraser being ticketed and having their car seized, although they had broken no laws. The Board of Inquiry also found that a senior police officer, Sergeant Bowes, attended at the incident and failed to supervise Constable Sanford adequately during the course of the incident.

When Mr. Fraser and Mr. Johnson were stopped at the shopping mall, a number of police cars collected. Mr. Johnson alleged that this police response was excessive and discriminatory. However, the Board of Inquiry was unable to find sufficient evidence to support this. It found that the major determiner of the number of police cars that collected was simply the opportunity to check out an unusually long traffic stop on a slow night.

The Board of Inquiry awarded Mr. Johnson $4,920 as compensation for travel expenses incurred because of the complaint and $10,000 in general damages. It also awarded $1,000 to Earl Fraser.

In addition, the Board ordered institutional remedies. The Halifax Regional Police Service was ordered to hire independent consultants to prepare, within six months, a needs assessment of its current policies and practices on anti-racism education and diversity training, to make the report public, and to provide its response to the report publicly indicating what steps it is planning to take to respond.

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