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.

"There was a lot of cause to make the traffic stop," asserts Clayton, who has patrolled downtown Miami during his entire twelve-year career. Parked away from the curb, Smith's car was in violation of the traffic statutes involving obstruction of traffic, the officer says. "The law says that if you park a motor vehicle so as to impede or inhibit the normal flow of vehicular traffic, then you can be issued a summons." Smith and the pedestrian, he adds, appeared to be engaging in "normal prostitution-type activity warranting further investigation."

The officer also says that later, in the presence of Sergeant Campbell, he questioned Smith about the incident. "Mr. Smith said that as he was leaving the Omni, he noticed his door ajar [and] stopped to close it and to put his jacket in the back seat. He said that while he was standing there, the gentleman approached him and said, 'My! You look good tonight,' but he sloughed him off. I bought his excuse, as flimsy as it was. It just didn't make sense: He stops in an area notorious for prostitution, he stops in the middle of the street and cuts his lights out. It doesn't take three minutes to take off your jacket and close the door." Campbell was not reachable for comment.

"I gave him a courtesy," Clayton says. "I didn't issue him a ticket for obstruction, which I could have." As for the sobriety test, he adds, "There was basis there to warrant a test: His clothes were wrinkled, I detected an odor of alcoholic beverage." The officer admits Smith wasn't showing any other physical signs of intoxication.

Clayton rejects Smith's assertion that he made the stop because he saw a black man driving a nice car through a crime-ridden part of town. He claims he didn't even know Smith was black until he pulled him over. "Most of the time, at night, you can't tell the race or the gender," the officer insists. "[Smith's allegation] is far from reality. I find that offensive."

When he was provided with the details of Clayton's version of events, Smith clarified and elaborated on his story for New Times. He remembers that he had driven from the Omni up NE Fourth Avenue A not along Biscayne Boulevard as he had earlier said A before turning left on Eighteenth Street. He stopped at a stop sign, with the car running, for as long as it took to put his jacket and his Spirit of Excellence Award in the back seat. His headlights remained on. He did tell Officer Clayton that the pedestrian had spoken to him, but they had no conversation, much less one that lasted more than two minutes. He didn't previously mention the brief encounter because he was unaware the man was a prostitute; Clayton, Smith insists, never told him anything of the sort.

"I expected him to lie to you. He's trying to make me look bad," snaps Smith, pointing out that he has made no secret of the traffic stop, and has been describing his outrage to friends and acquaintances alike. "If I had been doing anything wrong, I wouldn't have mentioned it, would I? There's no rumor, no police report, no nothing. But people are going to believe it when they hear it," he predicts. "I'm a single man.... They're going to believe it." Smith is twice divorced and has two children.

"I'm sure Officer Clayton knows what's suspicious or not," asserts Off. David Magnusson, a City of Miami police spokesman. "I don't subscribe to the opinion that people get pulled over because they're black or white or whatever. There's always more to it except just that."

Criminal defense attorney Benjamin Waxman disagrees. "Every day there are more and more incidences where citizens are stopped, embarrassed, and humiliated based on hunch and conjecture," argues Waxman, who is co-chair of the ACLU's Greater Miami Chapter Legal Panel. "The simple act of being in a particular neighborhood and engaging in a conversation with a pedestrian is not enough to create sufficient suspicion to seize that person's body and subject them to the humiliation that goes along with that type of encounter.

"These kinds of cases are thrown out of courts regularly," adds Waxman indignantly. "But it continues to go on. And it is done in the name of hysteria over crime in South Florida. My feeling is that the community has virtually granted license to do this by not reacting, by not being outraged."

Smith isn't sure whether he'll file a formal complaint with the police department's Internal Affairs Section. "I'm too angry to decide right now," he says. "I'm trying to calm down." Nor has he made up his mind whether to accept the invitation to join the nascent anti-crime coalition.

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