“I was racially profiled”: Chapman student challenges ticket from California Highway Patrol

Domenick Sevor was driving to Chapman Grand in his Honda Civic when he was pulled over on Interstate 5. Photo by Amir Ghani.

A Chapman sophomore says he is yet another statistic in the racial profiling scandal that has rocked southern California law enforcement.

On August 23 Domenick Sevor was driving to Chapman on move-in day. The communications major had left his San Jose home that morning in his Honda Civic filled with clothes, furniture, his skateboard and other personal items, destined for his new digs in Chapman Grand. He was making good time traveling on Interstate 5 through the village of Grapevine (about halfway between Bakersfield and Santa Clarita), when a California Highway Patrolman on a motorcycle in front of him “slowed down, got behind me, and turned his lights on signaling me to pull to the far left,” Sevor recounted.

Sevor, who is African American, knew what to do when stopped by a cop. He had been stopped before when driving his brother’s Mercedes in white neighborhoods. He also grew up in a law-enforcement family. His mother served four years as a police officer and another twenty as a correctional officer. She had given her son the drill on how to behave when stopped so as to put police, who face danger when stopping strangers, at ease.

Sevor turned down his music and put his hands on the steering wheel at “ten and two” to allay the officer’s concerns.

But the officer, he recounted, seemed irate before even speaking with him. “He comes up to the window really aggressively and says, ‘Why the ‘f’ are you following an officer?’ I was dumbfounded. I was trying to explain my situation, but he just cut me off and asked for my license and registration,” Sevor said.

Sevor gave him his license and registration and the officer walked back to his bike, returning about 10 minutes later to give Sevor a $400 ticket for speeding (the officer pegged him as going 80 mph in a 65 mph zone) and “following a CHP unit several miles.”

Now, months later, he is fighting the charges, claiming the officer had no valid reason to pull him over and did so because of his race. And besides – how could he be speeding and following an officer, if the officer was driving at the speed limit?

“I was racially profiled,” Sevor said “There was no real reason for the officer to stop me.”

The sophomore’s experience is not a unique one. About 76 percent of all profiling complaints about California law enforcement agencies in 2017 concerned race or ethnicity, according to the 2019 Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board report. Other complaints include sexual orientation profiling and age profiling.

Sevor said he’s been the victim of “driving while black” before, but never before had the inconvenience resulted in a costly ticket and having to miss school to attend court dates. On March 1st, Sevor had to drive two hours to the courthouse in Grapevine, just to be told by the judge that he “didn’t have to be present” that day and instead would have to show up on April 15th for his hearing.

The day he was stopped by the CHP motorcycle cop, “I was going 70 miles per hour on the 65 miles per hour freeway but always stayed at least three cars behind the officer who had to be going 80,” he recounted. “I was keeping up with the flow of traffic,” he added.

“The cop may have been suspicious because of all my furniture,” Sevor continued. “When I’m at home I get pulled over all the time. All of those times I never got ticketed. I was in the wrong part of town maybe driving a car they’re not used to. Occasionally I would drive my brother’s Mercedes. That’s when I was getting pulled over a lot.”

“At home I’ve been pulled over six times in total and pulled over once here. Back home I was pulled over in the wealthier areas, mostly west and east San Jose,” Sevor said.

CHP staff did not respond to Sevor’s specific accusation of racial profiling, but said the agency does not support the practice. “We train our officers to treat everyone as equal individuals,” said CHP Public Information Officer Christian Baldonado.

“We [the CHP] do not condone racial profiling. In fact, we are one of the most diverse departments out there as far as races within our department,” Baldonado said.

The note written on his ticket indicating he was “following” an officer was not a citation, but just a note to the officer to jog his memory should the ticket come up in court, said Officer Josh Greengard, a spokesman for the CHP.

When asked how it was possible for Sevor to be both speeding and following an officer if the motorcycle cop was driving the legal limit, Greengard said the officer was probably speeding because he was responding to a call that was later cleared.

But the California Highway Patrol has a long history of racial profiling.

In 1999, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a racial profiling lawsuit against CHP after a Latino attorney was stopped by an officer because “his car touched the line and he turned his headlights on,” according to the ACLU.

The lawsuit reached a settlement in 2003, after which CHP pledged to reform their traffic and disciplinary policies.  

Over a decade later, claims of racial profiling by the CHP persist.

From 2012 to 2017, 40 percent of motorists stopped by the California Highway Patrol were Latino and two-thirds of those had their vehicles searched in Grapevine, the same area that Sevor was stopped at, according to an investigative report by the Los Angeles Times.

“Cops have different behaviors in different regions. They come from different cultures and backgrounds. Even though it seems everyone is going 80 miles per hour, officers still may be extra vigilant of their surroundings, especially if they’re on a motorcycle,” said Patrick Buelna, a civil rights attorney who specializes in civil rights and criminal defense at the Law Offices of John L. Burris.

Motorcycle officers may determine speed using two techniques: pacing, a tactic in which the officer maintains a constant speed behind a vehicle and estimates the driver’s speed, or using a radar system. Radar signals may detect speeds up to a mile away and around curbs, according to Greengard.

“A lot of the motorcycle guys are usually somewhat senior because it takes a little bit of practice to get on those motorcycles,” Officer Greengard said. “I don’t think they’re more nervous or less nervous than a normal road patrol officer in a car.”

“The officer probably wrote down that he was being followed as probable cause. He wrote the distance [8 miles] to determine the speed the accused was going,” Buelna hypothesized.

The Racial and Identity Profiling Act, passed in California in 2016, requires that officers collect traffic stop data every time a vehicle is pulled over. This data includes the duration of the stop,the reason for the stop, the perceived race and age of the driver and whether or not the officer perceives the subject “to be LGBT.”

The CHP keeps track of their agency’s traffic stop data, according to Officer Baldonado.

“At any point if [an officer] is accused of racially profiling all that data is available and would be pulled,” he said.

If no racial profiling incidents are reported then the information remains in storage.

“Cops should record information, but now with what’s going on in America with all the race relations – especially between cops and minority groups – I think the data can be easily falsified or biased,” Sevor said, “Driving while black is when you’re a person of color and pulled over for seemingly no legitimate reason.”

Out of the more than one million drivers stopped in California from July to September of 2009, 166,650 were black, according to data from The Stanford Open Policing Project. About 6.5 percent of California’s population is black or African American, according the U.S. Census Bureau

“Knowing that I have no family down here, I’m always worried that if I do get pulled over and arrested for some reason, I’ll be in there a long time. It’s a scary thought,” he said. Sevor is reevaluating his relationship to law enforcement.

“I feel more nervous when I get pulled over down here because I’ve heard stories of police brutality and that’s always on my mind,” he said.

Sevor’s next court date is on April 15 where he will present his case to a judge and jury. The citing officer will be present to tell his side of the story, Sevor said.