When he was just 24, a litany of minor driving infractions had made Philando Castile a familiar face to Twin Cities police.
“I know Castile from multiple contacts over the past five years,” a St. Paul Police officer wrote after stopping Castile in 2007. “I also noticed he failed to use his turn signal.”
By age 30, Castile had been pulled over 44 times. Three years later, when he was shot dead by a St. Anthony police officer during a July 6 traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Castile had been pulled over by police 49 times. The misdemeanor tickets cost him more than $7,000. His license had been revoked and reinstated again and again, depending on whether he paid the fines.
Castile’s traffic stops since 2002 show him caught in a cycle, with fines and fees he couldn’t pay, that some attorneys say is common in Minnesota, even for those who have jobs, as Castile did.
But for others, the sheer volume of traffic stops for a driver without a serious criminal record raises questions about whether the black man with dreadlocks may have been singled out. Of 82 non-parking citations he was given over the years, 47 were dismissed.
“Nobody in the world gets stopped that many times,” Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, said in an interview. “I know people that live their whole life without ever having a ticket. So you accumulate that many tickets, that is obvious something is going on.”
In Minnesota, most police agencies don’t collect racial data on traffic stops. The most recent data looking at traffic stops in Minnesota, from 2003, found that blacks were three times more likely to be stopped than whites. St. Anthony was not part of that study.
But to Jeffry Martin, a St. Paul city prosecutor from 2005 to 2006 and current president of the city’s NAACP chapter, there’s no question the numbers are skewed.
“All you have to do is go to the arraignment court and see who’s getting pulled over,” Martin said.
It’s unclear why Castile was stopped the day he was killed. In a live Facebook video streamed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds said they were stopped for a broken taillight. A lawyer for the officer, Jeronimo Yanez, said Yanez believed Castile resembled the description of a robbery suspect.
In audio obtained by the Star Tribune, an officer casually remarks that he’s going to stop a car because “The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose. I couldn’t get a good look at the passenger.”
Castile had been stopped before, when officers spotted him not wearing a seat belt, or when an officer ran his plate number and found his license had been revoked for not paying an earlier fine. Numerous stops came after he didn’t use a turn signal. A few came after he was speeding. He was stopped for rolling through a right turn on a red light, having window tints that were too dark, and at least twice for not having a rear license plate light. He was rarely ticketed for the reason he was stopped. His interactions with police eventually slowed. Although he was continuing to receive licensing and insurance violations, there were only seven incidents involving police contact from 2011 to when he was killed.
About half of Castile’s charges were ultimately dismissed after he paid fines, made plea bargains, took driving courses, and in one case paid $275 to not have two violations show up on his record. (Previous media reports said he had been stopped 52 times; however six of those incidents were for parking violations.) He represented himself in most of the cases. At least three times the court granted him a public defender, which is provided to defendants who cannot afford a private attorney.
“It was a cycle of things. He’d get the tickets, pay the fines,” said his mother. “He didn’t need for police to stop him continuously. He’d pay these tickets off, and then he’d get some more tickets. It was just a repetitive thing.”
Mary Moriarty, Hennepin County’s chief public defender, said Castile’s situation of being stopped so often, fined and losing a license is not unusual.
“It’s a black hole of which many of our clients don’t get out of,” she said.
Moriarty said many of her clients, often deep in poverty, can’t afford to pay a ticket. But that can result in a license revocation and steep charge — up to $600 — to get a license back, in addition to the fines and fees of the original ticket. Moriarty said her clients still need to drive to get to work.
“And then they get profiled,” Moriarty said.
According to a 2005 St. Paul police report, officers responded to a report of men loitering. Upon arrival, they immediately recognized Castile getting into his vehicle. They stopped him.
“We have had numerous contacts with him in this car,” the officer wrote. “Normally, Castile is very cooperative and friendly, today he refused to exit the car and had to be ordered out. He finally complied on the 4th or 5th order.”
He was cited for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. The charge was dismissed.
‘I’ll pay it’
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1996 that officers can stop a vehicle anytime they have reasonable suspicion a traffic violation occurred. That, Moriarty said, made it far easier for police to pull over drivers and more difficult to challenge unjust stops in court.
She believes that’s also made it more likely for minorities to be racially profiled and stopped.
St. Anthony police released data this week showing that in 2015, blacks accounted for 41 percent of arrests and 15 percent of the agency’s citations. However, the agency didn’t identify race for nearly 20 percent of the citations it issued. Blacks make up about 6 percent of the population of St. Anthony, Falcon Heights and Lauderdale. Officials with the department declined an interview.
While declining to comment specifically on Castile’s case, Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said in a statement that the organization “condemns racial profiling with the strongest possible tone.”
“The legitimacy of our power is only as good as the trust people have in law enforcement agencies,” Skoogman said. “We urge citizens who feel they were targeted because of their race, gender, or ethnic background to bring those complaints to police chiefs or community groups, who will ensure they will be thoroughly investigated.”
Through it all, Philando Castile never complained about being profiled, his mother said.
She said her son kept driving, even when his license was revoked, so he could get to work. For 14 years he worked for the St. Paul School District serving lunches and supervising cafeteria workers, a job that paid him $33,317.66 in 2015.
“He’d say, ‘OK, it’s a ticket, I’ll pay it and go to work. I love what I do,’ ” she said.
Data editor MaryJo Webster and Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.