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Woman sues Utah Highway Patrol claiming racial profiling

Published: Friday, Jan. 2 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

When she was asked to step out of the car, Sherida Felders thought she was just going to sign a speeding ticket.

"He just asked me out of the blue if I had any meth on me or cocaine or crack in my vehicle," she recalled Tuesday. "I said no. Then he said, 'You don't mind if I search (your) vehicle?' I said, 'Yes, I do mind. I'm not giving you permission to search my vehicle."'

The 54-year-old San Diego, Calif., woman is suing the Utah Highway Patrol, accusing a trooper of racial profiling during an early morning traffic stop on Nov. 20 outside Cedar City. Felders and two of her grandson's friends, Elijah Madyin and Delarryon Hansend, are black.

"I'm black and I drive an SUV with rims on it," Felders said.

They claim in a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court in Salt Lake City that UHP trooper Brian Bairett unfairly searched her vehicle on I-15, even after a police K-9 found no drugs. They were on their way to Fort Collins, Colo., to watch the Wyoming-Colorado State football game.

When she asked the trooper what made him think she had drugs in her car, Felders said the trooper pointed to the medals on his uniform and said: "This is what makes me think it."

For the next 2 1/2 hours, troopers searched her car.

"Due to the long period of time that Ms. Felders was made to stand in the cold weather, she has since had constant and severe pain in her hip and groin," her attorney, Robert Sykes, wrote, noting that she suffers from arthritis and torn tendons in her right hip.

Sykes doesn't dispute that the initial traffic stop for speeding was lawful. Felders admits to driving 84 mph in a 75 mph zone. However, Sykes said that once the trooper sought to detain her to search for drugs without any evidence, he crossed the line.

"After the initial traffic stop, Trooper Bairett unlawfully searched Ms. Felders' vehicle without a warrant, permission, reasonable suspicion, or probable cause, but based solely on her racial profile as a black woman along with the racial profile of the two young black men," Sykes wrote.

To add insult to injury, Felders claims the trooper tore apart her luggage and threw it back in her car.

"They went through all of our clothes. They took every piece of clothing piece by piece, they went through our pockets, they went through our backpacks," Madyin said.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages. The Utah Department of Public Safety declined to discuss specifics about the traffic stop but said the trooper "did have some red flags" that prompted him to search Felders' vehicle.

"We don't believe this was racially motivated," Sgt. Jeff Nigbur said Tuesday.

Felders filed a complaint with the agency, and an internal affairs investigation is under way. The UHP completed a localized investigation, but Nigbur would not say the results. Bairett remains on patrol, he said.

"We take the complaint seriously. If there's any mis-action that occurred, we're going to deal with it," Nigbur said. "On the same line, there's always two sides to every story."

"None of them have ever felt discriminated against racially — ever," Sykes said at his law firm Tuesday. "Until they came to Utah."


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com

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