By MICHAEL VIRTANEN
Associated Press Writer
ALBANY, New York- A judge ruled Friday that state police violated a black woman's rights against unlawful searches when she was stopped during a 1992 hunt for a knife-wielding assailant who authorities believed was a black man.Court of Claims Judge Thomas McNamara ruled the state was liable for damages to Sheryl Champen, the only female claimant in the class-action case. McNamara is expected to issue a written ruling within the next three months on whether the rights of 28 black men in Oneonta, New York, were likewise violated in September 1992.
The lawsuit claims violations by authorities of the plaintiffs' rights to equal protection, as well as their rights against unlawful search and seizure and seeks more than $3 million (euro2.5 million) in damages on behalf of 60 black people, most of whom were male students at the State University College at Oneonta.
As the trial ended Friday, McNamara reserved decision on other parts of the suit. A hearing still has to be held regarding Champen's damages, said Robert Foley, the judge's clerk.
Champen was assistant admissions director at the college when a 76-year-old white woman was attacked at a home a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) away. The victim identified her attacker as a black male, and a blood trail indicated he had been cut. Using a list of black students at the school, police systematically questioned them and black residents of the small upstate city.
Champen was stopped by two troopers and asked for her identification and to show her forearms as she stood in a line to board a bus in Oneonta, said the claimants' attorney Scott Fein. Black men in line were also questioned.
"Her situation was so egregious," Fein said. "She's willing to forgo damages in exchange for a comprehensive state policy against race profiling. The state maintains they have a policy. ... But they need training and accountability."
In defending the police, Assistant Attorney General Michael Rizzo insisted there was no racial profiling, saying their policy of pursing possible suspects based on a victim's description is "race neutral."
Following the incident, the university took steps to increase racial sensitivity, including training for faculty and staff. It also increased hiring of minorities, funding for minority programs and counselors for students.
The college official who turned over the list of names was temporarily demoted. Former Gov. Mario Cuomo, the state police and Oneonta State officials all apologized for the searches.
On the Net:
New York Court of Claims: http://www.nyscourtofclaims.state.ny.us