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State Supreme Court limits vehicle searches
The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled police must suspect a motorist has committed a particular crime before asking for consent to search a vehicle following a routine traffic stop. Hennepin County's chief public defender had argued such search requests were racial profiling tools.

St. Paul, Minn. — Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Len Castro has argued for years that police disproportionately subject people of color to additional questioning and searches following routine traffic stops for violations such as broken tail lights or ornaments hanging from rear view mirrors.

Castro says when such violations lead to interrogations and searches, more people of color are caught in the net of the criminal justice system because they are too intimidated or don't know that they may refuse an officer's request for a search.

Castro calls the ruling a big decision for the people of Minnesota, particularly people of color: "We've been fighting for a long time about bias in our justice system and racial profiling. And I think the Supreme Court has taken a huge step in the fight to make sure that a bias in our justice system is reduced."

The ruling overturns the drug conviction of Mustafaa Fort. In March of 2001, Fort, an African-American man, was a passenger in a car stopped by two Minneapolis police officers in north Minneapolis. Police stopped the car for speeding and a broken windshield. As one officer talked to the driver, another asked Fort whether he had weapons, or drugs or objected to being searched. Fort said he did not object. During a patdown, the officer found several small lumps of crack cocaine.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Alan Page said while the police officer's initial stop was proper, asking Fort about drugs and weapons had no connection to the stop. He said police must have a particular basis for suspecting criminal activity before they ask for consent to search because a reasonable person would not feel free to disregard the officer's questions.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Pete Cahill says the prosecutor's office disagrees. "Our position all along is police have a right to ask for consent and the person is free to say no," he said. "Obviously the Supreme Court created a state constitutional right that affords more protection."

The Minneapolis Police Department declined to comment on the ruling. The president of the Minneapolis NAACP, Reverend Albert Gallman says police shouldn't need such tactics to combat drug dealing or other crimes. He says the war on drugs can be fought in other ways.

"We, especially those in the African-American community know that the discretion that police officers can use is not in our favor most of the time," Gallman said. "And most African-Americans, if not the majority of African-Americans, especially in this city, are law-abiding citizens and for a few police officers to use bad judgement at a time when they can violate an individual rights, that's too high a price to pay."

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