N.j. Settles A Profiling Lawsuit The State Police Agreed To Pay A Woman $225,000. An Agency Spokesman Called It A First.

Posted: March 18, 1999

An African American woman from Long Island has reached a $225,000 settlement with the New Jersey State Police in a lawsuit in which her attorney said she was the victim of racial profiling on the Garden State Parkway.

The settlement, which was announced yesterday and has yet to be approved by a U.S. District Court judge in Trenton, is the first time the state police have agreed to pay damages in a suit involving suggestions of racial profiling, according to John R. Hagerty, a state police spokesman.

The lawsuit was filed by Dorothy Cobbs, 52, of Wyandanch, N.Y., who alleged she was involved in a scuffle with a trooper after she was stopped on the parkway in 1996.

The state police have, since last April 23, been the focus of accusations of racial profiling - illegal traffic stops based on a motorist's race. On that date, two white troopers on the New Jersey Turnpike shot at a van carrying four young minority men, injuring three. None of the four motorists was charged with a crime.

More recently, several troopers have said racial profiling is an ingrained practice on the force, a method used to initiate searches for drugs on the assumption that minority motorists' complaints about unconstitutional searches will be taken less seriously.

Critics have said the Trooper of the Year Award encourages the practice by rewarding troopers who tally the largest number of arrests and the greatest quantity of drug seizures.

State police leaders have consistently said they oppose racial profiling. But last month, Col. Carl Williams was fired as the top state trooper because he suggested that certain minorities were responsible for the drug trade.

According to the lawsuit filed by Cobbs, she was driving her black 1986 Porsche between 4 and 5 p.m. on Jan. 4, 1996, when she was stopped for no reason other than her skin color by Patrick J. O'Dwyer, a two-time trooper of the year.

According to both sides in the lawsuit, the incident evolved into a scuffle in which each was injured.

Cobbs said O'Dwyer assaulted her when she demanded to know why she had been stopped. Her injuries were physical and emotional, her lawsuit alleged.

O'Dwyer, a 13-year veteran who was assigned to work for the New Jersey Highway Authority on the Garden State Parkway, said Cobbs smelled of alcohol when he pulled over to assist her, seeing that she had stopped. He said she became belligerent, at one point shoving him into traffic. The trooper said he was struck by something that he believed was a car and was thrown to the pavement.

The Highway Authority, which operates the parkway, ``has agreed in principal to a settlement with Ms. Cobbs in the sum of $225,000,'' said Dennis Ingoglia, a spokesman. ``The settlement admits no wrongdoing on the part of the Highway Authority nor the individual troopers nor the Division of State Police. The settlement was reached in an effort to avoid the cost of lengthy litigation.''

``This was a classic New Jersey State Police profile stop based strictly on the type of vehicle and the race of the occupants and nothing else,'' Cobbs' lawyer, Ronald W. Sage, wrote in papers filed with the court on Dec. 23.

In an interview yesterday, Sage said Cobbs was charged with drunken driving, refusing to take a breath alcohol test, aggravated assault on a police officer, and resisting arrest. He said that a Monmouth County Superior Court judge threw out the alcohol-related charges, and that a jury took 10 minutes to acquit Cobbs of the assault and resisting-arrest charges after a three-week trial in July 1997.

``Twelve people came forward saying she's called the Mother Teresa of Long Island,'' Sage said. Her supporters called her a woman who never touched alcohol in her life, while three troopers testified that she smelled of alcohol, Sage said.

According to Cobbs' account, she was driving north on the parkway in Aberdeen Township, Monmouth County, when O'Dwyer pulled her over.

O'Dwyer, who Hagerty said is Asian American, was named trooper of the year in 1989. That year, he made more than 400 criminal arrests and 200 alcohol-related arrests and seized illicit contraband valued in excess of $3 million. He won the award again in 1992, when he arrested 77 people after initiating 69 ``patrol-related investigations'' and seized more than $228,000 in contraband.

Cobbs said in her lawsuit that O'Dwyer told her that she had a broken taillight when she asked why he stopped her. Because it was daylight and her car lights were not on, she said, she asked how he could possibly know one was broken.

``Her repeated questioning of [O'Dwyer] apparently irritated him, and using profanities he grabbed Dorothy Cobbs by the wrist and pulled her,'' the lawsuit alleged.

Cobbs said O'Dwyer pushed her against a guardrail, punched her in the face, and sprayed her with Mace. She broke free and ran across the highway, only to be tackled by O'Dwyer, the suit alleges.

Later, at the Holmdel barracks, O'Dwyer and fellow trooper John Ryan ``slammed her against the wall [of a holding cell,] spit in her face and subjected her to further verbal abuse,'' the lawsuit alleges.

O'Dwyer testified that he had stopped to give assistance to Cobbs when he saw her slow down and pull to the side of the road, according to a final pretrial order supplied by Sage. The trooper testified that he smelled alcohol on her breath, and that when he asked how much she had had to drink, she shoved him into traffic. A struggle ensued in the highway that O'Dwyer ended by punching Cobbs in the head ``in order to insure both Dorothy Cobbs and Trooper O'Dwyer's safety,'' according to the pretrial order.

Sage said he had sought $250,000 for Cobbs on grounds of false arrest, malicious prosecution, conspiracy to suborn perjury, and violation of her civil rights. He said negotiations with the state police and the highway authority began a month ago, leading to the settlement announced yesterday.

Hagerty said that O'Dwyer was assigned to the Garden State Parkway in a tactical patrol unit, and that Ryan was a detective assigned to the crime-scene investigation unit.

``At the conclusion of the civil proceedings, the [Internal Affairs Bureau] will investigate the case and make recommendations'' about whether O'Dwyer and Ryan should be disciplined, Hagerty said.

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