ABC News wins racial-profiling case
By The Associated Press
TRENTON, N.J. Three police officers who claimed that ABC News portrayed them as racist in a report called "Driving While Black" failed to prove that the network was malicious or inaccurate, a state appeals court ruled.
The finding on May 21 upheld a lower court's ruling dismissing the officers' $3 million lawsuit over the November 1996 report on "Prime Time Live."
The 12-minute segment, which focused on racial profiling of motorists, included a traffic stop captured on a hidden camera. Jamesburg officers Louis Hornberger, Robert Tonkery and James Mennuti were seen searching a Mercedes-Benz occupied by three black men and also frisking the men.
The network had hired the men to drive the car for several days through a drug-plagued neighborhood in the predominantly white central New Jersey town, the suit said.
The lower court had ruled that the officers failed to prove that "Prime Time Live" acted with malice when it aired the traffic stop. The three-judge appeals panel agreed, concluding the search was illegal and the frisk unwarranted.
The judges also said the segment was not defamatory because it was accurate.
The traffic stop was "a pretext to launch a criminal investigation without articulable suspicion, probable cause, or legal consent," Judge Michael P. King wrote.
The appeals court also set a new standard for police officers under the wiretapping act, ruling that the officers had no expectation of privacy because the search took place on a busy public highway with all four car doors ajar.
Neville L. Johnson, the officers' attorney, said he would urge his clients to appeal the ruling, which he called "harmful to the people of New Jersey."
ABC said it was pleased with the decision.
"We stood by our report from the very beginning, and we are very gratified with the judges' decision today," said Jeffrey W. Schneider, vice president of ABC News.
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