Westminster Police Frisk, Search Hispanic Man for Fidgeting with Calculator
by Ari Armstrong, March 1999
February 24, 1999 -- A few hours ago, in the early afternoon (around 1:00), I witnessed what seemed to be a violation of the civil liberties of a Latino American.
I had a gift certificate to Walmart, so I dropped by the store in Westminster (off Sheridan just north of 92nd) to purchase some automobile oil. As I parked, I saw a police car stopped in the lane a few stalls down from me with its lights on, blocking a red car that looked like a Transam. I exited my car and could see that a female police officer was demanding that a man sitting in the driver's seat of the red vehicle come out of the car. He was a Latino man, probably late 20s, with long, curly hair, wearing a baseball cap. He protested at first, but then followed the police officer's order.
The female officer either held the man's hands behind his back or cuffed him -- I couldn't tell from my position -- as she frisked him. By this time, I had stopped to observe. The male police officer, whom I later discovered to be R.C. Patrick with the Westminster Police, confronted me. He asked, "Does this car belong to you?" I replied, "No, it doesn't." He asked, "Do you know this man?" I replied, "No, I do not."
He said, "Then this doesn't concern you." I replied, "Well, I'm a citizen." He asked me to move to a greater distance and not interfere. He said that if I had questions he would address them later. I complied, observing from farther away.
The female officer searched the Latino man's vehicle as Patrick interrogated the man. The female, apparently convinced that the man wasn't harboring drugs or illegal immigrants in his car, soon joined Patrick. I couldn't hear every part of the interrogation, but it was clear that the officers were asking him about his family, the legitimacy of his driver's license, and so forth.
The man, after his initial verbal protest, acted in a very submissive, friendly way. He was trying to let the police know he wasn't dangerous in any way, and still retain some dignity. He spoke with a Spanish accent. I never gathered whether he was born in the United States or if he immigrated here.
After the police officers were finished with the gentleman, he walked back toward Walmart. Patrick got in his vehicle but could tell that I wanted to chat with him. I told him I had concerns that there didn't seem to be probable cause for the search and interrogation. I was very polite, not wanting to add tension to the discussion (or get arrested). He told me that he couldn't tell me anything about the specific incident, which I can understand.
I asked him, generally, what the rules are when determining if probable cause for a vehicle search exists. "Can you just decide on the spot that cause exists to search a vehicle?" I asked. "Pretty much," he replied. Patrick suggested that I could ask the Latino man for specific details if I wanted to. I decided that I would do just that, and thanked the officer for his time.
I caught up with the Hispanic man in front of the store and asked him, "Would you mind if I asked you why they searched your car?" As we entered the store, he told me he had no idea why he had been searched and interrogated. He had purchased a calculator (or a similar electronic device) in Walmart and was waiting for his brother in his car in the parking lot. He said he was only fidgeting in the parking lot with the items he purchased, but the police must have thought he was "drunk or on drugs or something."
While talking with the gentleman, I could tell he was bright, coherent, and affable. He did not act impaired in any way, and I did not smell any scent of alcohol. He was just a regular, nice guy. He could have been one of my friends. He was obviously a bit shaken up by the matter, but he remained easy-going and cool-headed.
So why was he singled out for a police search and interrogation? It seems clear the only reason is that he was a Latino man with long hair in a Transam.
Do you think the police would have searched, frisked, and interrogated a white man waiting in his car in the parking lot?
I'm not suggesting that the police officers displayed intentional racism. Rather, I believe they were only taking advantage of the fact that Latinos are less able on average to demand their legal rights. Plus, the police were quick to validate the legality of the man's stay in the United States -- only Latinos are singled out for such suspicion.
One possible cause of concern is that Patrick also wore a badge that indicated he is a "field trainer." Was this search, frisk, and interrogation part of his field training? I don't know, but I certainly hope not. If it was, the "lesson" might be construed as, "Today, we're going to learn how to violate the civil liberties of immigrants."
I want to make clear that I was merely a casual observer in this matter. There may be some strange fact I don't know that might affect the proper evaluation of the case. But I don't think so. After talking with the officers and with the victim, the incident seems to have been fairly straight-forward. The police thought a man waiting in his car looked suspicious, so they searched, frisked, and interrogated him. I am quick to add, however, that a full review of the matter would need to research possible additional facts.
As a citizen, though, I have every reason to question this seeming violation of privacy by the Westminster police.
Addendum: After reading this article, David Bryant offered some great advice: "Next time you see a police officer harassing someone and the officer asks you if you know the person, consider saying, 'Not yet. But I'm thinking about becoming his attorney!'"