December 1, 2005 Thursday
Held for 7 Days, Man Says New Jersey Profiling Continues
By RICHARD LEZIN JONES
A Burlington County man has accused the state police of racial profiling after a traffic stop in South Jersey led to his being jailed for seven days last spring on an outdated arrest warrant.
The man, Albert W. Florence of Mount Holly, spent a week in two New Jersey jails before officials realized that he had already paid fines stemming from a seven-year-old warrant.
Mr. Florence, 30, who is African-American, said that while he was being held in jails in Burlington and Essex Counties, he was subjected to improper strip searches. He also claims that he was denied the right to contact a lawyer.
In July, Mr. Florence filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the two counties and the state trooper who arrested him, accusing them of discrimination, unlawful arrest and false imprisonment. He will hold a news conference on Thursday to address what he charges is the continuing practice of discriminating against black and Hispanic drivers, which state officials acknowledged in 1999.
”As a black male, I follow it and I’m aware of it, and to have it happen to you is, like, ‘Wow,’ ” Mr. Florence said in an interview on Monday. ”I thought that the State of New Jersey had already addressed it — that it was something that was a thing of the past.”
The question at the center of Mr. Florence’s case — whether a traffic stop was legitimate or racially motivated — remains a delicate issue in New Jersey, where troopers are still trying to overhaul their public image after the state’s racial profiling scandal. Under a consent decree with the Justice Department, troopers are subject to federal monitoring of their procedures during traffic stops.
The most recent of the dozen reviews conducted so far found that the state had made solid gains in eliminating the practice.
State police officials defended the circumstances surrounding Mr. Florence’s arrest on March 3.
”The stop was a perfectly legitimate stop with a legal arrest,” said Sgt. Steve Jones, a spokesman for the state police.
Mr. Florence’s pregnant wife, April, was driving her husband’s BMW X5 sport utility vehicle when it was stopped for speeding. Mr. Florence and their 4-year-old son were passengers. According to Sergeant Jones, after the S.U.V. was stopped, the trooper who had pulled it over was told of the warrant by a dispatcher, and he verified its existence with two other sources — the mobile computer terminal in his patrol car and a telephone call to Essex County officials.
A warrant had been issued for Mr. Florence in 1998 after he fled a traffic stop in Irvington, N.J., because, he said, his license had been suspended for unpaid traffic tickets — a foolish incident, he acknowledged.
”It was a wake-up call: You’ve got to grow up,” said Mr. Florence, who is a finance director at a car dealership in New York.
A month after the incident, Mr. Florence pleaded guilty to hindering prosecution, a third-degree offense, and was sentenced to probation. By 2003, after Mr. Florence’s probation had ended and he had paid the roughly $1,600 in fines, the warrant was dismissed.
But for some reason, it apparently remained an active warrant in law enforcement computers.
”The ID matched the warrant,” Sgt. Jones said.
After Mr. Florence was arrested, he was held for six days without bail as a fugitive in the Burlington County jail in Mount Holly. On his seventh day in custody, Mr. Florence was transferred to Essex County. By that time, his wife had hired a lawyer, and he was released when a judge determined that the warrant was not valid.
Mr. Florence said that he repeatedly tried to tell officers that he had already resolved the warrant. ”They just ignored me,” he said.
J. Brooks DiDonato, a lawyer representing Burlington County, denied Mr. Florence’s allegations.
”All of his state and federal rights were observed and he was treated accordingly,” Mr. DiDonato said.
Mr. Florence’s lawyer, Susan Chana Lask, questioned those claims and the state’s progress in ending racial profiling.
”New Jersey keeps saying, ‘Oh, we’ve stopped it,’ ” Ms. Lask said. ”It didn’t stop. It just keeps going on.”