A state trooper’s stop of a Black motorist on Interstate 40 has led to a complaint to state officials and a related request for racial information about State Police enforcement practices.
Marion Humphrey Jr., a third-year law student, was stopped Aug. 20 by Troop J Trooper Steven Payton. According to Humphrey’s attorney, Conner Eldridge of Fayetteville, who employs Humphrey as a law clerk, he was moving from Fayetteville to Little Rock (where he’ll continue law school virtually) and using a rental vehicle. Payton stopped him allegedly changing lanes too quickly By Eldridge’s account, Payton told Humphrey he was acting nervous. He said a police dog “alerted” to something in the vehicle and Humphrey was handcuffed in the back of a police car for more than an hour while a search was conducted. Nothing was found. Humphrey was released after being issued a “warning” on his supposed lane change violation.
In a letter to Col. Bill Bryant, director of the State Police, Eldridge writes that the traffic stop was pretextual, there was no probable cause for the search and the warning citation Payton issued had no legal justification. Copies also went to Governor Hutchinson, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Public Safety Secretary Jami Cook.
To put the argument simply: Humphrey was stopped and searched for driving a rental vehicle while Black. Humphrey is the son of retired Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey of Little Rock.
Apart from the singular case of Humphrey, the letter sets the stage for a broad look at enforcement by Arkansas troopers in the midst of national debate — crisis might be a better word — on police attitudes toward Black people. Are they treated differently — and sometimes more violently — than white suspects? The answer seems to be answered affirmatively almost daily nationwide, aided mightily by now-ubiquitous digital recording devices.
Eldridge, the Demoratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2016, wrote:
The Arkansas State Police and Trooper Payton’s unlawful stop, search, and treatment of Mr. Humphrey violated numerous laws and constitutional rights of Mr. Humphrey. It is blatantly obvious that Trooper Payton and the Arkansas State Police treated Mr. Humphrey in this manner because of his race. Such treatment is unlawful, unethical, and outrageous. We intend to exercise all available legal avenues to hold Mr. Payton accountable for this egregious and racist behavior.
All others with the Arkansas State Police or other agencies who were involved and responsible will also be held accountable. Law enforcement actions such as this that involve clear racial profiling, abuse of power, and state-sponsored racism directed at African Americans must be confronted and stopped. Such reprehensible and discriminatory conduct should not and will not be tolerated in the State of Arkansas.
As a former United States Attorney and chief federal law enforcement officer in the Western District of Arkansas, I am appalled at this conduct. On behalf of my client and because justice demands action for Marion and others subjected to similar treatment, I intend to do everything in my power to pursue justice, call out racist actions as occurred in this case, hold those who abuse power accountable, and end the systemic racial injustice evident in situations such as this.
Under the authority of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), I request copies of the following records regarding the above referenced incident and actions that occurred on August 20, 2020, involving the stop of Mr. Humphrey, the search of Mr. Humphrey’s rental vehicle, and the issuance of Warning Order No. W002083, all associated matters, and certain other conduct by Trooper Payton and the Arkansas State Police, including but not limited to:
All video and related audio (including Dashcam, Bodycam, and any video or audio
Dispatcher logs and recordings,
Internal memos, and
Related departmental policies.
The letter also seeks personnel records on Payton and others involved in the Humphrey stop.
Payton was a defendant in an ACLU-backed lawsuit over alleged use of excessive force against a teenager and his mother in Dover, where Payton was then a deputy marshal. A jury refused to award damages against Payton, though the plaintiffs settled with another defendant for $225,000.
The letter also says:
In addition to specific information requested regarding Trooper Payton and the above-referenced incident, please provide general traffic statistical reports for the Arkansas State Police for the last five (5) years, including:
Trooper race information and ID,
Stop date and location,
Reason for stop,
Whether the vehicle was searched
Reason for search, and
Whether an arrest was made.
The governor and Rutledge, recently announced advocates of hate crime legislation, might want to add this topic to their public policy portfolio.
I’m seeking a State Police response.
Humphrey gave accounts of the episode on Facebook last week, one contemporaneous to the stop.
I’m seeking a comment from Bryant.
UPDATE: I received this prepared response, which was silent on the substance of the complaint, an unjustified traffic stop with a racial element:
Colonel Bryant is aware of the request for public records being requested by Mr. Eldridge. The correspondence has been routed to the department’s personnel who routinely receive and process Freedom of Information Act requests. The Arkansas State Police will comply with the law and provide the particular records Mr. Eldridge is allowed to receive as required by the FOIA.
Eldridge also said he’d welcome information from others about Payton, pretextual stops, racial profiling or other racial injustice by State Police. People may write email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE: Little Rock blogger Russ Racop, a police watchdog and candidate for city board, is out front on this again. He has video of the traffic stop, in which Payton sped up to 105 mph to catch the perpetrator of a dangerous too-quick lane change.
On his blog, Racop also managed to get a comment on the stop from the State Police, something I was unable to obtain.
The Eldridge letter says there are questionable facts about the stop, particularly whether it was warranted in the first place and then whether the search was made with probable cause. I’ve asked Col. Bryant for a response to the substance of Eldridge’s complaint, which was more than an FOI. Should I get something, I’ll add it.