Cathryn Stout is a doctoral student at Saint Louis University researching a paper on how residents of Mississippi are working to combat negative stereotypes about their state. She may want to reconsider that paper topic, however, after her alleged encounter with three Mississippi police officers.
According to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on Friday, Stout was traveling through Mississippi with a man named Raymond Montgomery to conduct interviews for her academic research when they were stopped by a highway patrol officer. Both Stout and Montgomery are African American.
The trooper allegedly told them they were stopped because Stout’s license plate was framed by an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority tag holder that obscured part of her plate. He issued no ticket for this supposed violation, however, and her attorney claims that her tag holder broke no Mississippi law. Alpha Kappa Alpha is an historically black sorority.
After Montgomery denied a request by the trooper to search the vehicle, the lawsuit alleges that things escalated very quickly. Over the course of the next hour, two more police officers arrived on the scene, including a police staff sergeant and an officer with a police dog. The officers interrogated Stout about the purpose of her trip to Mississippi. They asked if anyone had asked them to “transport anything” or if they were carrying weapons. When Stout began to video record the encounter with her cell phone, one of the officers allegedly ordered her to put her phone away. By the time the police finally let Stout and Montgomery go, the lawsuit alleges, the officers had rummaged through their luggage and Stout’s purse. They’d searched every compartment of the vehicle, and they’d used a wrench and a crowbar to remove the panels on the sides of Stout’s car.
They found nothing incriminating.
The Supreme Court has made these kinds of lawsuits very difficult to win. Among other things, the Court held in Whren v. United States that police who witness a driver committing a minor traffic offense can use that offense as a pretext to stop the vehicle and potentially escalate the stop into a search for evidence of a much more serious crime. Nevertheless, there are factors in Stout and Montgomery’s case — the possibility of racial profiling, the fact that police may has escalated the search without any valid justification for doing so, the fact that Stout’s license plate holder may not have violated any actual laws — that could enable them to prevail.
In the meantime, however, both Stout and Montgomery sought counseling to deal with the emotional toll exacted by this alleged incident. Stout also has not returned to central Mississippi, despite the fact that these trips are a useful component of her academic research, “due to emotional wounds and fear of a similar incident.”