By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
"They'd rather see me in the pen/Than me and Lorenzo rollin' in a Benzo."
--N.W.A, "Fuck tha Police"
Murphy Lee ain't Ice Cube. But we might be seeing a cover version of Cube's classic N.W.A. rant on Murph's next album, after the littlest Lunatic got picked up by the Ste. Genevieve County Sheriff's Department on Halloween. A deputy pulled over Lee's black Mercedes for expired tags, then claimed to smell a strong stench of pot wafting from the car. The officer found a small amount of weed in the Benz. When Murph refused to take a blood or urine test, he was arrested.
That's the story as it reads in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, anyway. But they made the mistake of trying to get anything beyond a boilerplate statement from Murph's lawyer, Scott Rosenblum.
Unlike the Post, however, I put in a call to Jane Higgins, publicist extraordinaire. (For more on her star power, check B-Sides this week.) Jane, bless her heart, cannot shut up.
So, what's up with Murphy Lee?
"He's in the studio working on his second album," says Jane. "He's here; he's in Atlanta. School is going great [Lee is studying criminology at Southeast Missouri State University]. He's doing well, his restaurant is doing great.... Why are you laughing?"
Nice try. What's up with the pot bust?
"He wasn't arrested for using marijuana," Higgins says. "He was arrested for refusing to take one of those tests they make you take when they think you're inebriated. He refused because they pulled him over for expired plates. His plates were not expired. That's lie number one."
"I don't know what the final outcome of that was," responds Ste. Genevieve police captain Mark Maples. "We ran the plates and they came back as expired. Based on the information [Lee's camp] told us, there must have been a screw-up with [the Department of Revenue] that they'd recently gotten corrected. So they shouldn't have been expired, but nonetheless they were. Which is why the officer made the stop to inquire further."
In truth, Murph was cited for marijuana possession and refusing to take the sobriety test, as well as for expired plates. Both Rosenblum and Higgins categorically assert that the car's papers and tags were up-to-date. And Jane doesn't believe Lee had any pot on him.
"They found nothing," she asserts. "He felt it was his right to refuse the test. Why did they pull him over? Why is he [taken] out of the car with expired plates? He refused to take the test because they wanted him to stand on one foot and count to 31. Could you do that? I couldn't."
Higgins says Lee was not driving under the influence of any drugs.
"This cop [Maples] was on the news saying marijuana was wafting out of Murph's car. Murph doesn't smoke. If anyone who was in that car smoked, they weren't smoking in that car, I guarantee you."
So it must have been another Murphy Lee who, on the hit single "Shake Ya Tailfeather," raps, "Collect so much grass popo be thinking we mow lawns." Obviously popo were thinking something else.
Regardless, Higgins says Lee does not use drugs.
"He is a good kid," the publicist says. "He understands that kids look up to him. He doesn't want to screw that up."
If Murphy Lee's plates weren't expired, it does raise the question of exactly why the police pulled him over in the first place. And Higgins is ready to speculate.
"I believe he was stopped because he was in black skin and in a black Mercedes," says Higgins. "The license was not expired. It was total racial profiling, and I've never seen anything so vile."
"First of all, the vehicle had tinted windows," counters Captain Maples. "How does the deputy make out whether or not the driver is black, white or purple if he can't see the driver?"
Maples also points to statistics that suggest his county doesn't engage in racial profiling.
"Last year, in our racial profiling stats, we stopped somewhere around six or seven hundred drivers. Only nineteen of them were black, Asian, Indian or other. And out of that number, none of them were arrested and none of their vehicles were searched. So there is no racial profiling going on here."
These statistics are available on the Missouri Attorney General's Web site, and they pretty much bear out Maples statement. Although blacks in Ste. Genevieve County were stopped at a higher rate than the norm, the very small sample (21 blacks were stopped there last year) and the fact that none of them were searched or arrested makes it difficult to paint the police as racist rednecks.
Murphy Lee -- given name Tohri Harper (no relation) -- has no prior police record, according to a search of court records in St. Louis city and county. (The search does reveal that he was born in 1979 and not 1983 as his publicity materials and allmusic.com claim). And automotive racial profiling is common enough to have a name: Driving While Black.
"I'm 51 years old, and I've been one stupid white woman," Higgins says. "The only thing that's changed is the signs have come down: 'Black people here, white people there.'"