The FBI will investigate allegations that the Volusia County, Fla., sheriff’s department made race-based traffic stops of black motorists in suspected drug cases.
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, in a letter released Friday, wrote Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) that the bureau would probe stops made along Interstate 95 as part of the sheriff’s program to seize assets of suspected drug offenders.
“You can be assured that if the evidence shows that there was a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes, appropriate action will be taken,” Reno wrote.
Conyers, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee, requested the investigation in a letter to Reno after testimony before a panel subcommittee in June.
The chairman said Volusia County Sheriff Robert Vogel submitted materials “which confirm that over 70% of his office’s asset seizures involved black motorists.”
Vogel said Friday he welcomed an FBI investigation of his Interstate 95 cash seizure tactics.
“We welcome any review,” the sheriff said. “We’ve said this time and time again. If anybody else wants to review it, let’s get it done. Let’s get it behind us and go on and do our job.”
Vogel has repeatedly denied using race as part of a motorist profile to determine whom to stop.
Since March, 1989, the office’s Selective Enforcement Team has seized about $8 million from people it suspects are drug traffickers, while making arrests in only 25% of the cases, according to one study.
A black woman motorist told the House committee that in 1990, Volusia deputies stopped her on Interstate 95 and seized $19,000--money she described as an insurance payment for damage to her Charleston, S.C., residence during Hurricane Hugo.
She was not charged with a crime and eventually was repaid only $15,000.
She is a plaintiff in a class-action suit filed by the NAACP against Vogel last month in federal court in Orlando. The suit alleges that the sheriff’s department has used a race-based drug courier profile since 1989 that targets black and Latino motorists on the interstate.
Conyers wrote Reno that the NAACP has provided the subcommittee with an affidavit from a former deputy sheriff. The document, he said, “describes the race-based practices of the office and at least one incident in which Sheriff Vogel personally witnessed an apparently pretextual stop of a black motorist.”
Conyers, in a statement replying to Reno’s letter, said: “My subcommittee recently heard outrageous testimony about the targeting of African-Americans traveling through Volusia County.
“Today, Janet Reno sent a message that this kind of racial discrimination by law enforcement will not be tolerated.”