Lead Story West Edition

Compton activist questions backseat detention

COMPTON — Royce Esters has fought the fight against injustice in the black community for years. The National Association for Equal Justice in America (NAEJA) president has voiced his opinion on discrimination, education and crime in the community for decades.

For that reason, Esters, who owns his own accounting business here, said he was surprised when he was the victim of a form of discrimination that violated his Fourth Amendment rights — the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant — when he was riding as a passenger in a friend’s car in April.

The friend was pulled over by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy. Esters was asked to get out of the vehicle, searched and then placed in the backseat of the deputy’s vehicle.

“He had no probable cause to put me in the back of the police car,” said Esters, the former member of Compton’s Standing Committee on Crime and the NAEJA’s crime committee. “You never mess with the passenger. You can ask for driver’s license and registration, but they have no business of going in your pants, taking your money out, and going in your trunk.”

The Compton resident said if an unlawful backseat detention happened to him, it is probably happening to numerous others in the city and he wants those people to report to the NAEJA when and where the unjust detainment happened.

“This is a look at what is going on in Compton,” Esters said. “I have a friend whose son has been stopped eight times for no reason. That is racial profiling.”

Los Angeles attorney Stephen Shikes agreed.

“There is something very wrong with that,” he said.

On Thursday, Esters and Shikes will hold a meeting at Esters’ office to announce the NAEJA is looking into whether many sheriff’s deputies patrolling Compton have been conducting unjust detainments.

“Backseat detentions are so common apparently that most people think it is perfectly OK to be taken out of your car and sat in the backseat of a patrol car,” Shikes said. “That is not really the case. There are times when the police can and legally should do that, but in Mr. Esters’ case, there seemed to be nothing there that warranted him to be taken out of the car, searched, his money taken out of his pocket.”

Representatives of the Compton Sheriff’s Station and a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to requests for comment.

The NAEJA’s query into whether Compton sheriff’s deputies have a pattern of conducting backseat detentions comes three years after a U.S. Justice Department investigation found that sheriff’s deputies in Lancaster and Palmdale — about 80 miles north of Compton — were conducting pedestrian and vehicle stops on mostly black and Latino citizens that violated the Fourth Amendment.

Last year, the federal government and Sheriff’s Department reached an agreement that introduced reforms on how the local law enforcement agency would conduct policing.

Shikes expects the Compton investigation to last between six months to a year and will possibly lead to a lawsuit. The attorney said he had one conversation with a Sheriff’s Department official after Esters’ detainment by officers, but that he could not reveal the details it. He only said the talk was a disappointment.

“The response from the Sheriff’s Department was unresponsive,” Shikes said.

Shikes said being the subject of the Fourth Amendment violation is a big deal and implored black, Hispanic and Asian drivers to contact the NAEJA if it has happened to them.

“What I’m expecting to find is a number of incidences of backseat detention that are unwarranted, unjustified and unconstitutional,” he said. “And that there is a pattern of practice in Compton to stop primarily African-Americans for minor infractions as a pretense to take them out of the car, search, cease, and put them in the backseat of the patrol car while they are running warrants, probation violations or anything.”

Shikes said people coming forward will legitimize what he and the NAEJA are doing.

“If it is widespread and we bring attention to it, than we can stop it,” he said.

Esters said NAEJA wants to end all discrimination in Compton.

“We are going after anyone that comes after black people due to racism,” he said.

For more information, call NAEJA at (310) 608-5878.