Lawsuit: Aggressive ticketing of Black drivers

Data obtained via a civil rights lawsuit making its way through federal court shows a half-dozen Buffalo cops issued an disproportionate number of traffic tickets to Black motorists.

By Geoff Kelly

This article was originally published in InvestigativePost. Read it here.

Between 2012 and 2020, one Buffalo police officer, Kelvin Sharpe, wrote nearly 12,000 traffic tickets. 

More than two-thirds of those Sharpe ticketed were Black, according to data gathered from Erie County and the City of Buffalo and analyzed by attorneys for the plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Another Buffalo cop, 14-year veteran Michael Acquino, wrote nearly 2,500 tickets for tinted windows in that same time period, 2012-2020. 

About 85 percent of the recipients were Black.

A third officer, Richard Hy, issued, on average, at least one more ticket per stop to minority drivers compared to white drivers over those nine years. 

In total, at least 70 percent of the tickets Hy wrote in that period were issued to  nonwhites.

The plaintiffs in Black Loves Resists in the Rust et al. vs. City of Buffalo et al. want to talk to those three officers, as well as eight more cops and two civilian city employees.

The lawsuit, filed in July 2018, accuses the City of Buffalo and its police department of racially discriminatory and unconstitutional traffic enforcement policies and practices. 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys say the officers’ testimony will shed light on how the Brown administration’s thirst for revenue translated into aggressive ticketing practices that targeted drivers in neighborhoods populated predominantly by poor people of color.

“People of color in Buffalo are stopped and ticketed at highly disproportionate rates,” Anjana Malhotra, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Investigative Post in December, when plaintiffs asked the court permission to conduct more depositions.

“They’re stopped for no or little reason, or pretextual reasons, and given more tickets on average than white folks,” she said.

Federal courts allow each side of a case to conduct up to 10 depositions. If a party wants to interview more witnesses — and if the opposite party objects — they can petition the court. Judges routinely say yes. 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys initially asked for and received permission to conduct 20 depositions. On Dec. 15, they filed a motion asking the court for more.

Two weeks ago, Peter Sahasrabudhe, an attorney with Hodgson Russ, filed an objection to the plaintiffs’ request for further depositions, noting the plaintiffs already had been granted “double the number of depositions they are entitled to take under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” 

“The defendants have spent countless hours producing documents in response to plaintiffs’ cumbersome discovery demands, many of which required the defendants to review electronically stored information … spanning back almost a decade,” Sahasrabudhe wrote. 

“The additional depositions the plaintiffs now seek would be cumulative and duplicative of information [plaintiffs] have already obtained.”

As of this week, plaintiffs’ attorneys had deposed nine former members of the department’s controversial Housing and Strike Force units, which were central to the traffic enforcement tactics that gave rise to the lawsuit.

Among them was retired Lt. Thomas Whelan, who testified last summer to widespread use of racist language by his fellow cops, including members of Strike Force, where he was a supervisor.

Other names on the plaintiffs’ deposition list include Mayor Byron Brown; current Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia; his predecessors, Byron Lockwood and Daniel Derenda; former Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer; and two retired inspectors who headed the department’s Internal Affairs Division, Harold McLellan and Robert Rosenswie.

To make their case for another dozen depositions, the plaintiffs’ attorneys submitted to the court an analysis of the ticketing practices of five officers, all of whom served with either Housing or Strike Force units, or both:

An analyst for the plaintiffs’ legal team used traffic stop and ticketing data obtained from the City of Buffalo and Erie County to document the practices of those five officers over a nine-year period. The analyst calculated the total number of tickets each officer issued, the number of tickets each officer issued per stop, and the number of tickets each officer issued for tinted windows — all broken down by race of the drivers who got the tickets.

In the charts below, “uncoded” means the officer didn’t fill out the driver’s race on the summons. We left those “uncoded” tickets out of calculations for white vs. nonwhite drivers, but kept them as part of the total number of tickets issued.

A sixth cop — Officer Charles Miller, formerly of the Housing unit— is included in one chart. Miller issued multiple tinted window tickets to an individual plaintiff in the case, Charles Palmer. Those tinted window tickets are the reason Palmer is part of the lawsuit. 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also want to depose Officer Robbin Thomas, who is a named defendant in the lawsuit; Miller; and three other officers — for a total of 10 additional cops. 

These officers “unquestionably have knowledge related to Plaintiffs’ allegations that cannot be obtained by other means,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in a motion filed in federal court in December.

The plaintiffs’ legal team also asked to depose two civilians: former Finance Commissioner Donna Estrich and a city traffic violations prosecutor, Octavio Villegas. The attorneys believe Estrich and Villegas can provide insight into how the cash-strapped city’s need to increase revenue might have influenced the police department’s ticketing policies and practices. 

The plaintiffs raised the deposition of Helfer, the former parking commissioner, as evidence of the relationship between the city’s finances and its traffic enforcement practices. Helfer oversaw collection of traffic and vehicle violation fines, as well as parking fees and fines. 

Helfer acknowledged that Estrich periodically asked for updates on traffic ticket revenues. In March 2018 — as the city’s fiscal year was approaching its end and Estrich was formulating a new budget — Helfer emailed Estrich, “We have been trending at 10,000 [dollars in tickets issued] per day. Based on that I would conservatively project $300K for March 2018.”

“I love it,” Estrich wrote back, according to documents the plaintiffs obtained through discovery requests.

“Folks were wrongfully stopped and ticketed over and over and over again, as the Buffalo Police Department had unconstitutional checkpoints predominantly in Black and Brown communities,” Keisha Williams, another of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told Investigative Post.

“Our position is that those folks are owed financial remedies.”

Court documents show that the officers whose ticketing history is parsed in the charts above have been the subject of numerous formal complaints by citizens alleging racial profiling and discrimination, harassment, rudeness, bogus tickets and false arrests. 

A summary of those complaints was also included in the plaintiffs’ request for extra depositions.

Several complainants accused officers of targeting individuals — stopping them on multiple occasions, issuing multiple tickets. 

One complainant claimed Whiteford stopped and ticketed him five times in one week.

Another claimed Hy, during a traffic stop, “balled up her summonses along with her license, registration and insurance card and threw them in her window.”

The plaintiffs are represented by a team of attorneys from three organizations: the Western New York Law Center, the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, and the Center for Constitutional Rights

Until a year ago, the defendants were represented by one attorney from the city’s law department, Robert Quinn, who — in his frequent requests for extensions on filing deadlines — admitted he was overwhelmed by the complicated case and the plaintiffs’ requests for documents and depositions. 

Last January, the city hired the law firm Hodgson Russ to help. Depositions began last spring.

Investigative Post contacted Michael DeGeorge, spokesperson for the mayor and the police department,  seeking interviews with anyone named in this story. He did not respond or otherwise comment.

A ruling on the motion for more depositions is expected later this month. The exchange of discovery materials, depositions, and expert reports is scheduled to be completed by August. A trial date has not been set.