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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Pair Suing N.J. Troopers Over Profiling: A Hispanic Couple From Willingboro Say A Verbally Abusive Officer Stopped Them Despite No Violation

By Joel Bewley

February 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

Rigoberto and Maria Martinez can't say for sure why a New Jersey state trooper pulled them over early one morning two years ago on Interstate 295 in Mercer County.

Rigoberto Martinez, who was driving, was not speeding. No tickets were issued or charges filed against the Willingboro couple, who were heading home from work in Trenton.

But they think they were stopped because they are Hispanic, according to a lawsuit the couple filed Jan. 31 in state Superior Court in Burlington County.

"They believe they were profiled because of the time of day and because he is from Mexico and she is from Puerto Rico," said Paul R. Melletz, their lawyer.

A state police spokesman yesterday referred questions about the complaint to the state Attorney General's Office, which would not comment.

The suit accuses Trooper John P. Cunningham of being verbally abusive to the couple after he pulled their truck over at 3:30 a.m. on or about Feb. 2, 2001.

He asked Rigoberto Martinez what "a Mexican is doing with a truck like this," according to the suit. When Maria Martinez complained, the suit says, Cunningham told her to "shut up" and asked her where she got the ring she was wearing.

Cunningham let them go after 45 minutes without a summons, but not before he took Rigoberto Martinez's credit cards "and threw them," the suit contends.

If the allegations are true, they should be caught on videotape.

In 1999, state authorities acknowledged that some troopers practiced racial profiling. Troopers now are required to videotape all traffic stops, said Lt. Al Della Fave, a state police spokesman.

Melletz said he planned to request a copy of the tape.

If it exists, it will be made available to the plaintiffs, said Chuck Davis, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.

When the couple arrived home, the suit says, Maria Martinez called state police to complain, but was told that a Mexican driving a red truck on I-295 should expect to be stopped.

She called back another day and filed a complaint, Melletz said. Along with Cunningham, Sgt. Stephen Hemphill and a sergeant whose full name was not given are listed as defendants.

The second sergeant was one of the people Maria Martinez spoke to on the phone the night of the stop, Melletz said. It is unclear whether she spoke to Hemphill over the phone or during the traffic stop, he said.

Melletz said his clients had received two letters in March saying that the stop had been investigated, and that disciplinary action had been recommended for Hemphill but not Cunningham, Melletz said.

The couple is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

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