Seatbelt Checkpoint Nets One Arrest

(Last Updated On: June 3, 2009)

by Jordan Green

Sgt. Mark Busam sidled over to make small talk with the growing throng of High Point Police officers congregating in the parking lot in front of the Rush Fitness Fitness Complex on Piedmont Parkway. A taciturn lawman, Busam was the coordinator for a Click It Or Ticket checkpoint, but he was one of only two officers from the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, the operation’s lead agency.

The officers with High Point Police Department, an easy-going and good-natured lot who outnumbered Busam and his fellow sheriff’s deputy at least five to one, made up most of the boots on the ground. Two state troopers were also present, and a couple officers with the UNCG Police Department would soon join the gathering. “Okay, I think we’ll get started,” Busam said. He told them they didn’t really have enough officers to set up on Wendover Avenue, as planned, and instead would conduct the checkpoint on Piedmont Parkway, a leisurely four-lane road that forms a shortcut between Guilford College Road and Wendover Avenue and connects a shopping center anchored by the Rush and another anchored by a Lowes grocery. “You may as well do your own court dates,” he added. The phalanx of law enforcement vehicles filed out of parking lot, drove a short distance south on Piedmont Parkway and then, one by one, pulled U-turns and parked along the shoulder with blue lights flashing on either side of the intersection of Woodpoint Street. Busam set out traffic cones on the northern end to funnel approaching vehicles into one lane, and the various officers took up positions on the grassy median. At exactly 10 a.m., the checkpoint was in place. The vehicles varied: commercial vans, rattletrap cars, a Dodge minivans, a GMC Yukon XL SUV, work trucks, late-model Japanese-make sedans driven variously by Hispanic workmen, pizza delivery drivers, young Asian women, African Americans and whites. The drivers’ comportment was consistent: mild panic, followed by fumbling for driver’s licenses and usually a cordial greeting to the officer at their window. Guilford County law enforcement agencies have come under scrutiny for their handling of checkpoints in recent months because of concerns that discretionary arrests of undocumented immigrants for not having valid identification could lead to deportation.

Sgt. Mark Busam speaks with a driver at a Click It Or Ticket checkpoint on Bridford Parkway on May 27. (photo by Jordan Green)

Thanks to a law passed by the NC General Assembly, thestate’s Division of Motor Vehicles cannot issue driver’s licenses todrivers who are unable to establish that they are legal residents,making the very act of driving a crime punishable by deportation. Moreseriously, immigrant advocates have raised questions about whetherlocal law enforcement agencies are engaged in racial profiling —another term for discrimination. The 1968 Safe Streets Act prohibitsdiscrimination by law enforcement agencies that receive funds from theJustice Department, and the 1994 Violent Crime Control and LawEnforcement Act prohibits law enforcement agencies from deprivingpeople of their constitutional right to equal treatment. The JusticeDepartment’s civil rights division has authority to investigate locallaw enforcement agencies and take civil action to remedy allegedpatterns and practices of discrimination. In 2003, the JusticeDepartment signed a memorandum of agreement with the city of Villa Ricain Georgia, mandating that its police department enhance reporting onhighway stops, improve training and self monitor to ensure againstracial profiling. Last month the wife of the Greensboro HumanRelations Commission reported that she observed a Greensboro policeofficer selectively stopping Hispanic drivers at a Click It or Ticketcheckpoint on Aycock Street. The city’s human relations department wasunable to investigate the allegation because the unidentified woman didnot file a formal complaint, but that didn’t prevent the account frombeing circulated among advocates for more lenient immigrationenforcement policies. The Greensboro Police Department was notamong the participating agencies at the recent Click It or Ticketcheckpoint on Piedmont Parkway on May 27, but the pattern of stops thatday suggested no effort to single out drivers who appear to be Hispanicand might be presumed to have a disproportionate number of undocumentedindividuals among their ranks. If anything, Asians — who makeup only 3.1 percent of the county’s population, according to the mostrecent Census estimate — appeared to be overrepresented among themotorists traveling along Piedmont Parkway. The checkpoint waslocated in out outlying section of High Point that comprises a kind ofno-man’s land in the Guilford County municipal map: A southward jog onPiedmont Parkway takes you into Jamestown; go in the other direction,and turn right onto Wendover Avenue, and you’re soon in the corporatelimits of Greensboro. The checkpoint captured traffic exiting the JamesLanding subdivision, a well-heeled, predominantly white community withhouses valued at around $300,000, and the Highlands at James Landing,which is also overwhelmingly white. High Point police OfficerBrent Kinney, who participated in the checkpoint, said he was surprisedto hear about concerns about racial profiling of Hispanic undocumentedimmigrants because Hispanics do not make up a high percentage of thosestopped, and in all his experiences with checkpoints he hadn’t heard ofa single incident in which a Hispanic driver ended up getting deported. The law enforcement officers staffing the Piedmont Parkwaycheckpoint typically took a batch of five to seven cars, with eachofficer approaching a separate driver and asking for drivers licenses.A spotter from the High Point Police Department would call out “Firstcar,” pointing his index finger over the roof of the vehicle and thenthe officers would pass the message down the line until the lastofficer, a state trooper, motioned for the vehicle to stop. Sometimesthe spotter would observe a driver who was not wearing a seatbelt, andask the driver to pull to the side of the road. Another officer, oftenSgt. Busam, would then write a ticket for the unfortunate driver. Atypical sequence of six cars subjected to license check was whitefemale, white female, Asian female, black female, white male and whitemale. Busam later said the officers were attempting to stop everyvehicle exiting from James Landing and the Highlands, and while nopattern of profiling was observed it was not clear that every driverwas required to display a license. At times, traffic backed upto the Guilford Crossing shopping center. Busam said that occasionallythe officers were allowing drivers to pass through the checkpointwithout displaying their licenses to relieve congestion. Rainwas another reason for temporarily lifting the checkpoint. A downpourbegan at about 11:17. Busam and three High Point officers took coverunder a tree while a fourth High Point officer waved cars through.After five minutes the rain let up and Busam said, “Let’s hit itagain.” Before it ended at noon, the checkpoint would yield 19citations for seatbelts, one for child restraint and a total of 22inspection and registration violations, in addition to four drivingwhile license revoked citations and 12 no operators license violations. Only one arrest was made: Sidney Rashad Walker, a 22-year-oldAfrican-American male driving a silver Chevy Trailblazer SUV with aMaryland plate. Walker was charged with driving while license revokedand improperly tinted windows. As his colleagues completedtheir paperwork or departed for lunch, Officer Kinney examined a 9millimeter Browning pistol recovered from a book bag in the trunk ofWalker’s SUV. Kinney said Walker had denied ownership of the gun, sothe High Point Police Department would take it in possession until therightful owner could claim it. A number of circumstances distinguishedWalker from the other three motorists cited for driving while licenserevoked but not taken into custody. “Mr. Walker is anout-of-state resident, and he produced a Maryland drivers license,”Kinney said. “Upon checking that, we found that he had a suspendedlicense in Maryland. He had one or more unpaid tickets in Maryland andNorth Carolina. He was really nice. He was released on written promiseto appear.”

The law enforcement officers staffing the Piedmont Parkway checkpoint typically took a batch of five to seven cars