Fri, Dec. 02, 2005
Falsely jailed man claims racial profiling
Held because of an old warrant, he has filed a federal suit. The county disputes his allegations against it.
By Joel Bewley
Inquirer Staff Writer
A Mount Holly man falsely jailed for a week on an outdated warrant has filed a lawsuit accusing the state police and two county jails of ignoring his constitutional rights because he is black.
Albert Florence, 30, was arrested after a traffic stop in March on I-295 in Burlington County revealed a warrant stemming from traffic tickets years earlier in Essex County.
Florence said that he had papers proving that the issue had been resolved, but that the state trooper would not listen to him. He was taken to the Burlington County Jail, where, he contended, he was strip-searched, denied permission to shower, and not given basic hygiene tools such as a toothbrush and toothpaste. He was not allowed to use the phone, he said in his lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Camden in July.
He alleges discrimination, unlawful arrest and false imprisonment and seeks $2 million in damages and attorney fees.
His attorney said it was a case of racial profiling. “He never should have been taken into custody,” Susan Chana Lask said after a news conference held in Newark yesterday to call attention to the case.
State Police Sgt. Stephen Jones said the BMW sport-utility vehicle, driven by Florence’s wife, had been clocked at more than 80 m.p.h.
The trooper called in the information, and the dispatcher said the BMW’s owner had warrants. The trooper double-checked the information on the computer in his cruiser, then asked the dispatcher to call the Essex County Sheriff’s Office to verify Florence was still wanted, Jones said.
“At that point, the trooper made a legal arrest based on the information he was given,” Jones said.
After six days in the Burlington County Jail, Florence spent a night in the Essex County Jail, where he was sent to face the warrant charge. A judge released him after his wife hired a lawyer and it was determined that the warrants had been satisfied.
J. Brooks DiDonato, an attorney for Burlington County, said yesterday that “the allegations as they relate to the County of Burlington are wholly without merit.” There was no strip search, he said.
Inmates arriving at the jail are told to remove their clothes while being processed so corrections officers can look for distinctive marks such as tattoos and document any visible injuries that might have occurred during the arrest.
Inmates then must shower with a lice-killing soap and 24 hours later are placed in general population. Each tier has pay phones they can use.
“Mr. Florence was treated fairly and equitably while at the jail, and all of his state and federal rights were observed,” DiDonato said.
Essex County officials, also named in the suit, would not comment.
State police officials said attempts to paint this as a racial profiling case were misguided. The agency has been under federal monitoring since acknowledging in 1999 that troopers targeted minority drivers.
The latest monitoring report, released in the summer, noted that errors with traffic stops were technical, not constitutional. Stops were “remarkably trouble free” between Oct. 1, 2004, and March 31, the report said.
Contact staff writer Joel Bewley at 609-261-0900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.