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In a major victory for black motorists suing over alleged “racial profiling” by New Jersey state troopers, a federal judge ruled Thursday that former New Jersey Attorney General Peter Verniero — who now sits on the New Jersey Supreme Court — can be held personally liable for monetary damages in a civil rights suit because he allegedly knew of the illegal practice and did nothing to stop it. But U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano of the District of New Jersey also ruled in White v. Williams that the black motorists cannot seek any injunctive relief because the state of New Jersey has already entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department that promised vast changes. Pisano found that the private plaintiffs can petition to intervene in the Justice Department’s case in order to monitor the state compliance, but cannot bring a second lawsuit that demands the same relief. But on the claims for monetary damages, Pisano sided with the plaintiffs, greenlighting their claims under �� 1981, 1983, 1985 and 1986. In addition to claims against Verniero, the judge also approved claims against two high-ranking state troopers — Col. Clinton Pagano and Col. Carl A. Williams. The ruling is a victory for a team of lawyers from Philadelphia and southern New Jersey who joined forces to file a proposed class action suit on behalf of any black motorist ever subjected to a traffic stop on the basis of race while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. The plaintiffs’ legal team is Stefan Presser, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania; Alan L. Yatvin and Howard D. Popper of Popper & Yatvin in Philadelphia; David Rudovsky of Kairys Rudovsky Epstein & Messing in Philadelphia; University of Pennsylvania law professor Seth F. Kreimer; and Justin T. Loughry of Loughry & Lindsay in Moorestown, N.J. They were originally joined by attorney William H. Buckman of Moorestown, N.J., who represented New Jersey’s South Burlington County Branch, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But the NAACP has since been dropped as a named plaintiff in the suit. In their � 1983 claim, the plaintiffs allege that during Pagano’s tenure as superintendent, he advocated the use of racial profiling. As proof, the plaintiffs pointed to comments Pagano made in response to the airing of a WWOR television special report, “Without Just Cause,” one of the earliest media accounts of racial profiling. After the show aired, Pagano stated that violating the rights of motorists was “of serious concern [to him], but nowhere near the concern that I think we have got to look to in trying to correct some of the problems we find with the criminal element in this state,” and that “the bottom line is that those stops were not made on the basis of race alone.” The plaintiffs also complained that the state’s Drug Interdiction Training Unit, which was formed in 1987, taught trainees to profile in order to effectuate drug arrests. They also cited statistics that, they say, showed the training had its intended effect because minorities were stopped more frequently than whites. As for Verniero, the plaintiffs alleged that he concealed the existence of racial profiling until April 1999, despite learning of its existence through a lawsuit shortly after he became the attorney general. The New Jersey State Police’s practice of racial profiling became a predominant public issue after a New Jersey Superior Court judge in Gloucester County declared, in a published opinion, that the State Police endorsed, on at least a de facto basis, a policy of racial profiling. The decision in State v. Soto was made in the context of suppression motions brought by 17 minority criminal defendants who had been arrested on drug possession charges after being stopped on the turnpike. The Soto court found that the drug defendants established a prima facie case of selective enforcement that the state was unable to rebut and therefore suppressed all of the seized evidence. The ruling was based in part on statistics which, the drug defendants said, established the existence of institutional racism within the State Police. Working from a database of turnpike traffic stops made by troopers working out of the Moorestown State Police Barracks between April 1988 and May 1991, the Soto defense team argued that African-Americans were 4.85 times more likely to be stopped on the turnpike than non-African-Americans. In the federal class action, the plaintiffs allege that Verniero concealed information from the New Jersey Appellate Division in the Soto appeal and from the U.S. Justice Department after it began its profiling investigation in 1997. Verniero’s inaction, the federal plaintiffs allege, allowed racial profiling to continue, when he should have used his knowledge and authority to rectify the problem. Judge Pisano found that the evidence was strong enough to allow the plaintiffs to go forward with claims against Verniero under �� 1983, 1985 and 1986. The ruling on the � 1986 claim — a rarely used provision of the Civil Rights Act — was significant because it directly targeted Verniero’s failure to take action. Section 1986 is a companion to � 1985(3) and provides a cause of action “against persons who, knowing that a violation of � 1985(3) is about to be committed and possessing the power to prevent its occurrence, fail to take action to frustrate its execution.” The federal plaintiffs alleged that when Verniero was attorney general, he had the ultimate authority over the State Police, and the attorney general’s office. For much of his tenure, the suit says, Verniero had actual knowledge of racially motivated conspiracies within the State Police, and had the power to stop the conspirators from committing discriminatory acts, but did nothing to stop the discrimination. Judge Pisano found that with such allegations, “plaintiffs have stated a valid claim under Section 1986.” But Pisano found the plaintiffs came up short on their � 1981 claim against Verniero because they lacked evidence that he acted with “discriminatory intent.” “The only reference to Verniero’s discriminatory intent in the amended complaint is the following conclusory statement: ‘the acts of the defendants were motivated by racial animus and by their desire to injure, oppress, and intimidate plaintiffs because of their race.’ No facts are alleged which support that allegation, or that Verniero had any intent to deprive plaintiffs (or anyone) of the enumerated rights contained in the statutory language,” Pisano wrote. The � 1981 claim therefore failed, Pisano said, because “conclusory allegations of generalized racial bias do not establish discriminatory intent,” and “plaintiffs have not alleged that Verniero acted with racial animus.”

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