Jean-Paul Wahnon has never run afoul of the law. So when a Walpole police officer rifled through his Toyota Prius on an August afternoon and repeatedly asked whether the car was his and whether he had a gun in his possession, Wahnon was concerned.
He had not violated any traffic laws before the officer activated his blue lights and pulled him over. As the cop tailed him during the previous 15 minutes, Wahnon drove carefully, following the instructions of his GPS as it led his Toyota Prius from a Kohl’s department store on Route 1 toward his mother’s Westwood home.
A career counselor by profession, Wahnon suspected that he was being profiled. The officer never gave him a reason why he was pulled over and didn’t cite him for any traffic violations.
“There were all sorts of red flags,” he said later. “But the way I was taught was to just get out of there alive.”
At a time when videos of trigger-happy officers gunning down hapless black motorists are proliferating on social media feeds, Wahnon’s bias toward self-preservation may be the most prudent approach. But he did ask the supervising officer why his car was being searched.
“He told me the officer was within his right,” he recalls.
Wahnon disagreed with the supervising officer’s interpretation of the 4th Amendment, which protects against illegal search and seizure. Through the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, he subsequently filed an official complaint with Walpole Police Chief John Carmichael Jr., alleging that it was illegal for the police to stop and order him out of his car without a reasonable suspicion that he had committed a crime, and search his car without probable cause for arrest.
The complaint, copies of which were sent to the Walpole Board of Selectmen, calls on the department to conduct an investigation of the incident, issue an apology to Wahnon, discipline the two officers involved, conduct implicit bias training for all Walpole officers, compensate Wahnon for the harm he suffered and pay attorney’s fees.
Chief Carmichael did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment by the Banner’s press deadline.
Lawyers’ Committee attorney Sophia Hall said complaints like Wahnon’s are not uncommon.
“In the past two months that I’ve been here, we’ve seen multiple complaints,” she said.
Last year, the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus advanced a criminal justice legislative package that included bills compelling Massachusetts police departments for more transparency on vehicular and pedestrian stops — including the race of those stopped, whether a citation was written or an arrest made.
The Legislature did not take the measure up.
“I am extremely frustrated that the Legislature closed formal sessions for this term without taking action on any of these proposals,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who filed one of the bills. “Looking ahead to January, I will refile the racial profiling bill and our comprehensive criminal justice reform bill and continue to organize with colleagues to push for votes on the MBLLC agenda.”
Without the data, attorney Hall says, stories like Wahnon’s help make people aware that there’s a problem.
“Like any issue, you don’t know it’s a problem until people talk about it,” she said.
Hall said that by filing a complaint, Wahnon is giving the Walpole police a chance to work with the Lawyers’ Committee on a solution. But, she says, the Lawyers’ Committee is prepared to litigate the case.
“It could go to federal court,” she said. “It will all depend on what claims we decide to bring.”