Emerson College professor Jabari Asim was surprised to find the criminal citation for driving without a license in the mailbox of his Newton home last week. He had been at work all day June 22, he said, his wife had the car to run errands — and they had a receipt, a witness, and his phone’s GPS data to bolster the claims.
Asim, an academic and executive editor of The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP, first assumed it must be a misunderstanding. But after walking to the police station and speaking to the police officer who wrote the citation, he began to wonder if race played a role.
“I’m not surprised to have difficulties with the police. I’m a 52-year-old black man,” said Asim, who has written books on race and justice. “I’m primarily frustrated because the question for me becomes, ‘How many people does this happen to? And how many of them do not have the resources I have?’ ”
A clerk magistrate will determine in a hearing whether the charge is warranted, and city officials said they would pay close attention to the outcome.
“Any time these types of questions are brought up, we take them very seriously,” said Newton Mayor Setti Warren, who added that he could not comment on the specifics of Asim’s case because the hearing has not yet been held. “We’re going to review the results of that hearing very carefully. And we’ll take action if necessary.”
Warren declined to elaborate on what action could be taken.
Newton Police Chief Howard Mintz, who spoke on behalf of the department and the officer who issued the citation, said that the dispute belonged before a magistrate, not in the newspaper.
“The court system is involved to resolve the matter,” said Mintz.
The police report says that at 6:15 p.m. on June 22 the officer was stopped at a red light at the intersection of Adams Street and Watertown Street when he saw a gray Nissan Quest drive by.
“My attention was drawn to the vehicle as the operator upon observing me immediately looked nervous and quickly turned his head forward and continued driving,” the report says.
The officer ran the registration and found that the vehicle was owned by Asim, whose license came up “denied/non-renewable.” When the officer’s light changed, he said he looked for the vehicle, but could not find it. So he looked up Asim’s RMV photograph, recognized him as the driver, and sent the citation, according to the report. Asim had a photograph in the RMV database because he had applied for a Massachusetts license in March 2014, but was denied because of an unpaid ticket in another state. Asim said that ticket has since been paid, but he has not re-applied for a license because he does not plan to drive — and reiterated that he was not driving that day.
Civil rights leaders said they were troubled by the fact that the officer cited a “nervous” black man as a reason to run the plates at all.
“This is all too common for African-Americans as we interface with law enforcement,” said Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.
Williams, who is black, said he likely would have looked away from the police officer as well.
“I’d like to see what that looks like, when somebody says I look nervous when I don’t look at you,” he said. “What I would say as a civil rights leader is that if this is the new standard that they are using for vehicle stops and citations, then we need to have a deeper conversation with those officers, because this is something that’s indefensible from my standpoint.”
Boston NAACP president Michael Curry, who knows Asim professionally, said it is always a concern when a police officer has a “hunch” about a person of color looking “nervous.”
“Their perception of our state of mind, or our nervousness, is always an issue,” said Curry. “That hunch could be based on bias.”
But while Asim said he was upset by the officer’s stated reason for being suspicious, he insists he was never in the car in the first place.
Asim bought the car for his wife, he said, so it is registered to him, but he does not drive, and was at Emerson at the time the citation was issued. Shaylin Hogan, the administrator in his department, said she saw Asim “engrossed” at his desk when she left the office at around 5:15 p.m. Cellphone GPS information Asim provided to The Globe shows his phone at his office at Emerson from 9:56 a.m. to 6:25 p.m. on June 22. And, he said, at the time the alleged infraction occurred, his wife had the car and was inside Target, with the car parked in the lot. He provided a receipt timestamped for 6:20 p.m.
When Asim walked to Newton Police headquarters on Washington Street after receiving the citation in the mail Thursday, he said he spoke with the officer who issued it, and told him that he was not driving at the time.
“He said, ‘No, it was you,’” said Asim. “I said, ‘I categorically deny that; you are seriously mistaken.’ ”
The officer snorted, Asim said, turned around, and said over his shoulder, “See you in court.”
Mintz declined to comment on the interaction inside the police station.
“We met face to face. He had an opportunity to look at me. That is astonishing,” said Asim. “It’s so dishonest, it’s so inaccurate, that it turns my stomach.”
Attorney Richard C. Morrissey, who helped author the book “Massachusetts Motor Vehicle Offenses: Criminal, Civil, and Registry Practice,” and who worked as a magistrate at Springfield District Court for 38 years before retiring, said that officers have a responsibility to take great care in making sure that the person they are citing is in fact driving the car.
He called the officer’s decision to issue the citation based on a photograph, without speaking directly to the driver, “obviously questionable.”
“Right now, I happen to be driving my mechanic’s car,” said Morrissey, who said he has heard thousands of appeals of citations similar to Asim’s in his career. “If a police officer was to run the car it would come back to my mechanic.”
The officer was technically within his rights to issue the citation, said Morrissey.
“Should it be done?” Morrissey asked. “I don’t believe so.”