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New York Times Profile

The New York Times
June 30, 2002

Pursuing Justice, Rewriting Law


BEFORE the turnpike shooting of 1998 brought the issue of racial profiling to national attention, there was State v. Soto.

By now, the particulars of the April 1998 shooting on the New Jersey Turnpike are well known: three unarmed youths, two black and one Hispanic, were wounded after being pulled over by two white state troopers who riddled their van with bullets when a fourth youth who was driving accidentally shifted into reverse. But as sensational as the turnpike shooting was, it might not have had such an impact had it not been for the Soto case, which two years earlier established the existence of racial profiling as a legal reality.

And if not for the work of William H. Buckman, a criminal defense lawyer with subtle feel for constitutional law, even the Soto case might have been just one more failed attempt by public defenders to combat turnpike drug arrests they had long suspected were stemming from racial profiling, though they could never prove it.

It was the novel legal strategy devised by Mr. Buckman that in March 1996 finally led to a successful motion to suppress drug evidence seized during a highway stop of a driver named Pedro Soto in Gloucester County and 16 other defendants whose cases were lumped together. The Soto case has led to the dismissals of more than 150 drug cases, including a group of 86 dismissed in April by Judge Walter R. Barisonek, a Superior Court judge specifically assigned to handle profiling-related appeals.

The case has earned Mr. Buckman the admiration of legal and civil rights colleagues and appearances in newspapers and on television.

"Bill Buckman has been a godsend not just to the state of New Jersey, but, in fact, to the nation," said the Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, one of the state's most prominent voices in discussions of race. "His pursuit of justice as it relates to the issue of racial profiling has really helped to somewhat balance the scales of justice for minorities."

In recognition of his efforts, Mr. Buckman was scheduled to receive the ministers' council's annual Justice Award at the Sheraton Hotel in Newark on Friday night.

Mr. Buckman, 49, who lives with his wife and two children in Cherry Hill, does not cut the mass media profile of a charismatic courtroom lawyer. While he has a casual manner and self-effacing wit that endear him to friends and colleagues, he is neither tall nor trim, and his curly hair is not as dark or as plentiful as it once was. Still, he is the Perry Mason of profiling, recognized as an accomplished civil rights lawyers.

Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, on whose board Mr. Buckman sits, called him "a tireless advocate."

"One of the things I like best about him is he's a total jokester," Ms. Jacobs said. "He makes our meetings more lively. He's also a committed family man. He drags his two kids to A.C.L.U. events -- you know, children of the revolution."

Edward Barocas, legal director of the A.C.L.U., said the Soto case "gave actual evidence to support the contention by minorities that they were treated differently."

Mr. Buckman's Soto motion focused on the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law rather than on the Fourth Amendment's due process clause, an argument that had been rebuffed by judges who routinely yielded to the judgment of officers in deciding what justified a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity to prompt a vehicle search.

Mr. Buckman and his Soto co-counsels persuaded a judge to let them subpoena statistics illustrating that minority drivers were being stopped at a rate disproportionate to their number on the turnpike. Further statistics indicated that black and Hispanic people were involved in drug arrests stemming from highway stops more often than in all circumstances. The judge in the case, Robert Francis of State Superior Court in Woodbury, was convinced that minority drivers might indeed have been deliberately singled out for highway stops. He placed the burden on prosecutors to show that state drug statutes were not being selectively enforced in violation of the 14th Amendment. The judge granted the defense motion to suppress in March 1996, after a six-month trial that ended in May 1995; the state dropped its last appeal in April 1999.

Essentially, Soto lent credibility to assertions that the turnpike shooting resulted from racial profiling, while the shooting attracted the headlines that the complex, protracted Soto case did not. "I hate to sound callous, but it would have been another set of minorities shot by police, their word against police -- but for Soto," Mr. Buckman said in an interview in his law office in Moorestown. "The shooting stood out in relief because of Soto. Soto stood out in relief because of the shooting."

Justin Loughry was a second private lawyer, along with Mr. Buckman, who joined two public defenders in Gloucester County, Jeffrey Wintner and Wayne Natale, to form the Soto defense team around 1989. The Soto motion was a collaborative effort, but, Mr. Loughry said, Mr. Buckman came to be most closely associated with the case, particularly after the turnpike shooting. "It may also be his devilish good looks," Mr. Loughry joked.

Mr. Loughry praised Mr. Buckman's cross-examination skills, and his creativity and foresight. "In terms of legal strategy, he's a visionary," Mr. Loughry said.

Visionary is not the term some troopers use. Christopher Burgos, a vice president with State Troopers Fraternal Association, the troopers' union, said Mr. Buckman was one of the people who "put us out of business" in terms of highway drug interdiction, in order to make a name for himself. "As far as William Buckman is concerned, we see him as an opportunist, Trooper Burgos said. "Our view of him is not as someone concerned with the greater good of society."

Mr. Buckman said several factors might have contributed to his becoming a civil rights lawyer: his father's admiration for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; his being unfairly accused of transgressions in grade school; a distrust of authority accentuated by the Vietnam war; and an interest in history and constitutional law fostered during his undergraduate years at Stockton State College, and then at Rutgers Law School in Camden.

The Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia where he grew up was so insular, he said, he had never met an African-American child until he went to summer camp at age 9. There he learned, he said, "These kids were just like me, which was really was an eye-opener."

His wife, Shellie, 49, a social worker, was a childhood friend. They have two children, Ethan, 11, and Emily, 7.

"I put the TV on sometimes when he's on," she said, describing the children's response as " 'Wow, Dad's on TV! All right, let's go back to cartoons.' "

"We got married in '89, and actually, the trial in Gloucester County was during my pregnancy with my daughter," she said. "He worked a lot of long hours, but it wasn't any problem at all. He has so much energy."

The Buckmans own a 10-acre farm in Vermont, where they lived from 1995 to 1997. They moved back because Mr. Buckman missed New Jersey's faster pace, but spend weekends and vacations at the farm. Mr. Buckman likes to tinker with a prized 1948 Ford tractor there, and go cross-country skiing with his family.

"My son's into fishing and I'm very much into pretending to fish," Mr. Buckman added. Mr. Buckman says his children sometime come to mind in the context of his work.

"I think about how lucky they are that I don't have to tell them that when a policeman stops you, keep your hands in view," he said, referring to the sad lesson some black parents give. "I think about how unfair it is that my African-American friends have to worry about the dangers of crime and the dangers of law enforcement at the same time."

And although he knows he is not popular among troopers, one thing Mr. Buckman said he does not worry about is flashing lights in his own rear-view mirror.

"They don't have me on their radar," he said. "They don't have the short, white, chubby, Jewish profile."

Copyright _ 2002 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.