H.T. Under th Collar

Do black motorists get pulled over by cops for no good reason? Attorney H.T. Smith used to think so. Now he knows so.

Few black South Floridians enjoy the name recognition and high profile of Miami attorney H.T. Smith. A perennially rumored candidate for political office, Smith led the three-year Boycott Miami campaign that ended in May with a major agreement between Dade's business and civic leaders to narrow the economic disparity between whites and blacks. In July he was elected president of the National Bar Association, a group that represents 16,000 black attorneys across the country. So it was only fitting this past month, after the murder of German tourist Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand, that Smith should be invited to lead a civic anti-crime coalition.

And it was likewise appropriate, though strangely so, on the night of September 27 -- the very same night the Miami Herald presented him with a Spirit of Excellence Award in recognition of his service to the community -- that Smith should have an encounter that he says gave him a unique insight into Miami's crime problem and the way it is being handled.

Smith's version of events that night: He left the awards banquet at the Omni International Hotel at about 10:30 p.m. He hadn't had a drink all night, but as he slid behind the wheel of his burgundy 1983 Cadillac Seville, he was feeling pretty good about the honor and about his contributions toward making Miami a better place to live. Headed back to his offices and home on the west side of Overtown, he drove north on Biscayne Boulevard and made a left on NE Eighteenth Street. Near the intersection of NE Second Avenue, a City of Miami police officer pulled him over.

"He ordered me out of the car, and ordered me to sit on the hood," Smith recalls, adding that the cop, William Clayton, didn't tell him why he had been stopped. Neither did Smith ask. "Being a black man," the 47-year-old attorney says, "I know not to say anything to a police officer."

Smith sat on his hood for the next twenty minutes, at which point "at least three or four" additional police cars arrived. He says that during the powwow that ensued, he overheard a conversation between Clayton and a superior, Sgt. John Campbell, both of whom are white. "Campbell asked the officer why he stopped me," Smith remembers, "and Clayton said, 'He was driving a car like this through Overtown.' The sergeant looked at him with an expression on his face like, 'And? Okay, so what did he do?' Then Clayton said, 'I saw somebody leaning into the passenger side of the car.' When he said that, I said, 'You damn liar!'" According to Smith, no one had come near his car as he left the Omni, with the exception of a pedestrian who was simply walking along the sidewalk.

Smith says that after another huddle with his fellow officers, Clayton informed him of his option to undergo a sobriety test and that if he refused, it could be used as evidence against him. "I said, 'Evidence of what?' It was like Alice in Wonderland or A Clockwork Orange! I turned to Campbell, who I've known for twenty years, and said, 'Now you can see why black people have a difficult time dealing with the police. I've never been arrested for anything; you know I'm a lawyer. This officer stopped me because I'm black and I was driving a Cadillac through this neighborhood.' Campbell said, 'It's not race.' I said, 'Damn right it's race!'"

The officers convened for a third time, Smith remembers, and then he was approached by the sergeant. "He extended his hand and said, 'No hard feelings.' I said, 'Glad you're feeling that way, goodnight.'"

He was released without being cited for any infraction.
Smith says he understands that law enforcement officers are under an increased state of alert since the tourist slaying. "But you just can't stop anybody anytime," he argues. "If I had been speeding, or if I was weaving, then that would be different. The fact is that when there's a crime crisis, the police believe they can justify suspending the rights of black males based upon the fact that if they stop enough black males, they'll find something wrong.

"Criminals see blacks as easy victims; police see blacks as hardened criminals," the attorney concludes. "But we are on neither team. We're up in the bleachers, watching."

Officer Clayton's recollection of the traffic stop is markedly different from H.T. Smith's. He says he was driving north on Biscayne Boulevard when he first noticed Smith's Cadillac on Eighteenth Street east of the boulevard, headlights off, parked several feet from the curb. A man whom Clayton describes as a "known homosexual prostitute" was speaking with the driver through the passenger-side window. The officer pulled off Biscayne onto Nineteenth Street out of view of the car and waited a minute. "I wanted to give it time to see what would transpire," Clayton explains. When he drove around the corner toward Smith's car, Clayton says, the prostitute noticed his police car and walked away, and Smith drove west along NE Eighteenth Street. The officer pulled him over two blocks down.

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