CHP Settles Lawsuit Over Claims of Racial Profiling
The California Highway Patrol has agreed to end traffic stops based solely on hunches, extend a ban on searches of vehicles without probable cause and monitor whether black and Latino motorists are more likely than others to be pulled over, the agency announced Thursday.
In a class-action settlement submitted to a federal judge Thursday, the state’s highway police became the nation’s first law enforcement agency to voluntarily agree to stop asking motorists for permission to search their vehicles, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. The CHP will continue to search vehicles in cases where it has good reason to suspect a crime.
The settlement ended a 1999 lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of three minority motorists who said their cars were stopped and searched based upon their ethnicity, a practice known as racial profiling. Data obtained by ACLU lawyers found that Latino drivers were three times as likely as others to be stopped and searched by the CHP and African Americans were 1.5 times as likely.
But the pact goes beyond a ban on racial profiling, and bars specific law enforcement tools that minorities say have been used to target them. Under the agreement, the CHP will collect data on every traffic stop, including the race of the motorist, whether a search was conducted and what was found. Such data, which many local police departments also collect, will be reviewed by an internal auditor and used by the CHP to monitor its officers.
“For years, driving while black or brown has been an inherently suspicious activity in the eyes of law enforcement,” Alan Schlosser, legal director of the Northern California’s ACLU, said at a news conference. He said officers used consent searches to go on a “fishing expedition” for drugs and weapons.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that consensual searches are constitutional. But the ACLU argued that the CHP’s stops and searches were targeted at minorities, and therefore in violation of federal law.
The high court also has ruled that law enforcement can use minor traffic violations as a pretext to stop motorists to investigate criminal activity, another practice the CHP has agreed to end under the settlement.
The CHP, which denies it stops motorists because of their ethnicity, agreed to the settlement to improve public confidence in the agency and resolve the litigation. The CHP will pay the ACLU $725,000 in attorney fees and court costs and $50,000 in damages to each of the motorists named in the suit.
CHP Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick said he personally has never favored officers asking motorists for permission to search their cars because that’s “a lazy way of doing your work.” The lawsuit “made us focus on this issue,” he said.
The CHP issued a temporary moratorium on such voluntary searches in 2001. Under the settlement, the ban will be extended to 2006.
Helmick said the Highway Patrol agreed to keep data on stops and searches because “a part of the public perceives there is racial profiling.” “How can we prove we don’t do that unless we have data?” he said. “I think the data will show we don’t.”
Many people consent to searches just so they can get out of the situation and be on their way, ACLU lawyers said. Sometimes motorists have language difficulties and are unaware that they are giving consent.
The ACLU and the CHP unveiled the settlement at separate news conferences. U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose is expected to approve the new policies later this year.
“Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that consent searches are constitutional, here’s one agency that says they don’t need them,” said Jon B. Streeter, a private San Francisco attorney with the Keker & Van Nest law firm, who worked on the case without charge. “We think this will have a ripple effect.”
The ACLU looked at evidence of stops and searches by CHP drug interdiction officers in two CHP districts that included Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto, Santa Barbara and Ventura. The officers were looking for drug couriers.
“We know that the technique of trying to get people to consent to have their cars searched is something that officers are trained to do,” Streeter said. “And when we talked to people who had been racially profiled, we found in virtually all cases that there was a request to search.”
Now, CHP officers will not be able to stop a car to investigate a crime without probable cause. That could include a tip that specifies a kind of car and a description of the driver.
Officers will be required to record the reasons they stop vehicles and search them, and the race of the motorists. Each officer’s supervisor will review the documents on a daily basis to ensure compliance with the agency’s policies against racial targeting. “If any officer has a trend of stopping and searching minorities, the supervisors will know,” Streeter said.
In addition, the CHP will create a new position of auditor, who will focus on racial profiling and report directly to the CHP commissioner.
“Today’s settlement marks a turning point in the fight against racial profiling in California,” said Curtis Rodriguez, one of the three motorists on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed.
Rodriguez, a Latino attorney from San Jose, was stopped and searched by the CHP on June 6, 1998, on California 152. It was the third time he had been stopped by officers for no obvious reason.
Although he had consented to searches in the prior stops, this time he knew his legal rights and declined. “I think they stopped the wrong guy,” he said.
Many other Latino drivers also were stopped at the time, he said. Rodriguez said the officer told him he was pulled over because his vehicle had touched the lane line, and he had turned on his headlights.
Despite Rodriguez’s refusal to give permission for a search, the officer conducted one anyway. Nothing was found and no ticket was issued.
The ACLU believes the settlement will serve as a model for municipal police departments throughout the state.
“Already, data collected locally -- even by police departments in diverse and progressive cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento -- demonstrates large disparities in the rates at which African American and Latino motorists are stopped and searched,” said Mark Schlos- berg, an ACLU director.
But some police departments contacted Thursday said they would stop short of an outright ban on consent searches. San Jose Deputy Police Chief Rob Davis said consent searches have a role.
“There is definitely a time and a place for them,” he said. “They result in a lot of good police work.”
The San Jose Police Department instructs officers at its academy that it is appropriate to ask motorists to search their cars only when officers have probable cause, not merely because they have a guess, he said.
“It’s good administration to say, ‘Time out here,’ ” Davis said. “We have a lot of tools available to our officers. Let’s not misuse them. We don’t want to lose them.”
Los Angeles police are required under a federal consent degree to ask officers to document the race of all drivers and pedestrians they stop. But the LAPD continues to do consent searches. The consent degree requires only that they report such searches and the race of the person who was searched.
Times staff writer Jill Leovy contributed to this report.
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