I enjoyed reading “Justice with Intent to Distribute: Pensacola Man Helped Through Program That Takes Lawyers to the Community,” by Nancy Kinnally (May 2018). The article highlighted the importance and need for pro bono programs like Justice on the Block and of attorneys, like Mr. Ellis, who give their time to these programs.
What the article did not mention, but somewhat alluded to, was the racial profiling that contributed to the arrest of Mr. Gaines. The article provides that Mr. Ellis explained he was “troubled by the basis of the traffic stop — an obscured tag — and the application of a statute that, if widely enforced, would ensnare many die-hard sports fans and college boosters.” Mr. Ellis even admitted that he was in violation of the law with a frame around his tag. But Mr. Ellis has never been stopped, and is unlikely to ever be stopped for such a violation, because he is white. And even if he was stopped, police officers likely would not have tried to search his car as they did Mr. Gaines.
Police records have shown that white drivers are less likely to have their cars searched at traffic stops, even though they are more likely than black drivers to have drugs. Mr. Gaines was guilty of nothing other than driving while black. To fail to explicitly address or explore how race may have played a role in the stop and search of Mr. Gaines’ vehicle is to further the injustice he experienced.
As lawyers, we have an obligation to acknowledge inequalities in the law and the criminal justice system. It is a disservice, therefore, to talk in circles around important issues and ignore the racial bias that Mr. Gaines experienced.