Search and Seizure

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Feature: Blacks, Hispanics More Likely to Be Searched at Traffic Stops -- But That Is Not Proof of Racial Profiling, Justice Department Claims

While police stop white, black, and Hispanic drivers at similar rates, members of the latter two groups are much more likely to be subjected to a roadside search, according to a new report on citizen-police encounters from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). But BJS refused to conclude that the difference in search rates is caused by racial profiling, saying other factors could be at play.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/njturnpike.jpg
"While the survey found that black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than whites to be searched, such racial disparities do not necessarily demonstrate that police treat people differently based on race or other demographic characteristics," BJS noted in a press release announcing the report. "This study did not take into account other factors that might explain these disparities."

Civil liberties advocates contend that the report is flawed and that BJS is pulling its shots. They point not only to missing data in the current report, but also to political interference in the Justice Department on earlier reports, including a controversial 2005 report on racial profiling that was buried after then BJS head Lawrence Greenfeld refused to remove information about racial profiling. Greenfeld was shortly after forced from his position.

The current report studied police-citizen interactions in 2005 and found that 43 million Americans, or 19% of the population, had some form of interaction with a police officer that year. Some 18 million of them were for traffic stops.

In those traffic stops, only 3.6% of white drivers pulled over were searched, compared to 8.8% of Hispanics and 9.5% of blacks. Blacks were also more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested during a traffic stop and nearly four times as likely to report being subjected to force, while Hispanics faced a 50% higher chance than whites of being arrested and were nearly twice as likely to be subjected to force.

Even when police searched motorists' vehicles, they were unlikely to find anything. Fully 88% of all vehicle searches resulted in no contraband found. In previous reports, BJS published figures on "hit rates," or successful searches, by motorists' race, but it did not include that critical information in this year's report.

"The omission of data on hit rate by race is a glaring omission," said Scott Morgan, associate director of the Fourth Amendment education group Flex Your Rights. "Racial profiling apologists will first argue that there is no such thing as racial profiling, and when you refute that, they revert to the argument that profiling is justified by higher levels of criminal activity," he told Drug War Chronicle. "Hit rate data is crucial to refuting the argument that this discriminatory treatment of minorities is justified by their behavior."

Previous versions of the BJS report have found that police were less -- not more -- likely to find drugs or other contraband in vehicles driven by minority drivers than by white drivers. The lack of such data in the current report is a serious problem, said Reginald Shuford, senior staff attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Program.

"Many studies have concluded that despite being more likely to be searched by police, African American and Hispanic drivers are actually less likely to be carrying contraband," Shuford told the Chronicle. "This report is silent on that issue, but this is data that absolutely must be recorded and analyzed."

Shuford also scoffed at BJS's refusal to qualify its findings as evidence of racial profiling. "The numbers speak for themselves," he said. "Most people would look at these numbers and conclude that racial bias and profiling are alive and well. BJS's contention that they are unable to conclude that this is racial profiling is not particularly compelling," he said.

But BJS statistican Matthew Durose, one of the report's authors, defended the report's lack of hit rate data and limited conclusions. "The study was based on a sample size that is too small to form reliable estimates," he told the Chronicle. "In our sample of 64,000 respondents, 189 were stopped and searched by police, and only 30 cases involved African American drivers stopped and searched. We don't really have the numbers to form reliable estimates," he said.

As for calling it racial profiling, Durose said there was insufficient information. "There are countless circumstances that could explain these searches, and we don't have the officers' reasons for conducting them, so we are not going to say we have proven racial profiling. We don't take that leap. What we have done is to alert the public that this is the survey data."

But the critics were not mollified. "We think that the report demonstrates clear and significant racial disparities in what happens to motorists after they are stopped by law enforcement," said the ACLU's Shuford. "If BJS doesn't have a big enough sample size, they need to get one. This is really critical information, and it is likely it would be consistent with earlier studies, which found that African Americans and Hispanics are no more likely to be carrying contraband than whites."

"BJS released a report that shows that racial profiling exists, and then they deny it," said Flex Your Rights' Morgan. "And then they omit the hit rates. And they released this on a Sunday. The absence of critical data, the decision to go for a Sunday release, the burying of the last report on racial profiling -- all this paints a picture of a Justice Department not any more interested in talking about racial profiling than Congress forces it to be. These reports are congressionally mandated, and I get the sense that we wouldn't have them at all -- even in flawed form -- if Congress didn't make them do it."

BJS says it cannot produce evidence of racial profiling. The critics say it's because it doesn't want to. Meanwhile, another black guy is probably getting pulled over and searched on the New Jersey Turnpike right now.

Racial Profiling: Another DOJ Cover-up?

A new report from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows that black and Hispanic drivers are significantly more likely to be searched, arrested and subjected to the use of force than whites.

It was initially encouraging to see the DOJ release this year's report without any shenanigans considering what happened last time:
The Justice Department intervened, insisting that BJS not publicize that nasty part about minority drivers being more likely to be searched, arrested, handcuffed, beaten, maced, or bitten by dogs.

A conflict emerged in the course of which BJS Director Lawrence A. Greenfeld was removed from his post. His attempt to provide the media with an unbiased summary of his agency’s findings was apparently too much for his superiors at the DOJ. Ultimately, no press release was sent out, and the study was unceremoniously posted in the bowels of the BJS website.
Perhaps it's a sign of progress and lessons learned that DOJ declined to bury this year's equally shocking findings. After all, covering up racial profiling is one way – however shameful and undignified – of admitting that it exists.

Yet, upon closer inspection, we find that this year's BJS report omits the single most important piece of information contained in the previous report: hit-rate data showing whether minorities were more likely to be hiding contraband.
Likelihood of search finding criminal evidence

Searches of black drivers or their vehicles were less likely to find criminal evidence (3.3%) than searches of white drivers (14.5%), and somewhat less likely than searches of Hispanic drivers
(13%).
This revealing fact fundamentally undermines the sole premise from which police agencies and others have sought to defend ongoing racial disparities such as those revealed this week. Consider the following hypothetical (but really quite typical) debate with a racial profiling apologist:
RPA: There's no such thing as racial profiling. Cops don't even know the race of the driver until after they've made the stop.

Me: Who gets pulled over is only one part of the equation. The data show that minority drivers are more likely to be searched, arrested, and subjected to the use of force after being stopped…

RPA: Well, if that's true it's because those people committed more crimes.

Me: Actually, the data show that searches of white people are more likely to produce evidence of a crime.

RPA: Wow, you must have gotten straight A's at the Al Sharpton Academy of Social Science.

Me: This data comes from the Department of Justice.

RPA: Hang on, I'm getting a call. Oh yeah, gotta take this. Good talk.
DOJ was able to provide a racial breakdown of hit-rates in its previous report (the one it buried) thus the omission of such information from this week's report is highly conspicuous. And of course, DOJ's previous attempts to cover up racial profiling data attest to the agency's lack of candor and credibility on this issue.

The larger question then is why the Department of Justice seeks to downplay racial profiling in the first place. BJS reports primarily reflect the behavior of local law-enforcement agencies, not the feds. The only real embarrassment here for DOJ is its ongoing failure to provide adequate monitoring of police practices at the state level. An activist such as myself may be keenly aware of DOJ's abdication of this responsibility, but I suspect that most people are not.

In any case, we'd be hard pressed to generate any further controversy surrounding cover-ups at the Department of Justice this season. Instead, let's do our best to make sure everyone knows how to handle police encounters. No matter how thorough, a traffic stop report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics won't save your ass on the New Jersey turnpike anyway.

Location: 
United States

Futile drug war ignores target: Safety

Location: 
Atlanta, GA
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
URL: 
http://www.ajc.com/opinion/content/opinion/tucker/stories/2007/05/01/0502edtuck.html

Medical Marijuana Shop, Home Searched By Feds

Location: 
Bakersfield, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
KERO-TV 23 (CA)
URL: 
http://www.turnto23.com/news/13234122/detail.html

Butte's medical marijuana growing and distribution policy is challenged

Location: 
CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Oroville Mercury-Register (CA)
URL: 
http://www.orovillemr.com/news/ci_5761505

Pleas won't end probe of Atlanta police

Location: 
Atlanta, GA
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
URL: 
http://www.ajc.com/metro/content/metro/atlanta/stories/2007/04/27/0427metjohnston.html

Drugs police raid great-grandmother's home

Location: 
United Kingdom
Publication/Source: 
The Times (UK)
URL: 
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/crime/article1710249.ece

LAPD skid row searches found unconstitutional

Location: 
Los Angeles, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Los Angeles Times
URL: 
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-downtown25apr25,0,2444457.story?coll=la-home-local

Search and Seizure: Supreme Court Takes Up Rights of Vehicle Passengers

When police pull over the driver of a vehicle, are they also "seizing" the vehicle's passengers? That's the question the US Supreme Court pondered Monday as it heard oral arguments (transcript here) in the case of a California man arrested on methamphetamine charges after the vehicle in which he was riding was pulled over. Questions from the justices suggested they would not feel free to leave if they were passengers in a vehicle pulled over by police, and if that sentiment holds, the court could rule that passengers have the right to make Fourth Amendment challenges to any evidence seized and used against them.

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US Supreme Court
The case pits the state of California against Bruce Brendlin, a former convict wanted for parole violation. Brendlin was a passenger in a car pulled over ostensibly to inspect possibly expired inspection tags. The officer recognized Brendlin, arrested him, searched the car, found methamphetamine supplies, and added a drug offense to the charges.

Brendlin eventually pleaded guilty, but appealed on the ground that the evidence should have been suppressed because the traffic stop was later found to be bogus. (The officer already knew the tags were good because he had stopped the car earlier that same day). The California Supreme Court rejected Brendlin's appeal, holding that only the driver had been "seized" during the traffic stop -- not Brendlin -- and thus Brendlin had no basis for challenging an illegal search.

Brendlin's attorney, Elizabeth Campbell, told the court that when a police officer pulls over a vehicle, "he seizes not only the driver of the car but also the car and every person and everything in that car."

California Deputy Attorney General Clifford Zall argued that it is only the driver, not the passenger, who is "seized" because it is the driver who submits to the officer's authority. That caused some skepticism among the justices, a majority of whom indicated through their comments that they believe passengers as well as the driver are "seized." That is also the position of the courts in most states.

While Brendlin appears likely to prevail on this issue, he is still likely to be imprisoned as a parole violator. Still, what would likely be a symbolic victory for Brendlin could become a substantive victory for the rest of us.

Drug prohibition — lost liberty, money

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Observer (NY)
URL: 
http://www.observertoday.com/articles.asp?articleID=11332

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