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L.A. County sheriff launches 2 reviews of unit that stopped thousands of innocent Latino drivers on 5 Freeway

L.A. County sheriff launches 2 reviews of unit that stopped thousands of innocent Latino drivers on 5 Freeway
L.A. County Sheriff's Chief John Benedict, left, and Capt. Robert Lewis address the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission to discuss concerns of racial profiling by a highway enforcement team on the 5 Freeway. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has launched a pair of internal reviews into a team of deputies who have pulled over thousands of innocent Latino drivers on the 5 Freeway in a search for drugs.

Department officials told the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission on Thursday that auditors were examining data on the traffic stops and that the department’s constitutional policing advisor is reviewing the team’s practices amid concerns that deputies engaged in racial profiling along the highway.

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The announcement came as commission members questioned department brass about the team’s work and a Times investigation that found the deputies stopped and searched the vehicles of Latino drivers at far higher rates than motorists of other racial or ethnic groups.

The analysis of the traffic stops, Commissioner Lael Rubin said, “gives the impression, or perhaps more, that this task force is targeting members of the Latino community.”

Chief John Benedict and Capt. Robert Lewis, who oversee the Domestic Highway Enforcement Team, denied that race plays a role in whom the deputies stop along a rural, 40-mile stretch of the freeway near Santa Clarita.

Nonetheless, Benedict highlighted the two ongoing inquiries for the commission, which are in addition to an independent review being done by Max Huntsman, the county’s inspector general.

A department spokeswoman said auditors were reviewing the team’s policies and procedures while the constitutional policing advisor is examining state and federal cases that were rejected by prosecutors or dismissed after filing.

Huntsman applauded the department’s decision to conduct its own audit but said Sheriff’s Department officials should have been analyzing the team’s stops before The Times.

“The most troubling thing about what happened in The Times was it was news — that we didn’t know it already, that the department wasn’t already crunching these numbers,” Huntsman said.

A Times analysis of more than 9,000 stops found that 69% of drivers stopped by the highway team from its start in 2012 through the end of last year were Latino and that two-thirds of them had their vehicles searched — a rate far higher than motorists of other racial and ethnic groups. Cars belonging to all other drivers were searched less than half the time, according to the analysis of stop data.

Deputies found drugs or other illegal items in the vehicles of Latino motorists at a rate that was not significantly higher than that of black or white drivers, The Times’ analysis found.

Some Latino drivers pulled over by the team have said they believe they were the victims of racial profiling.

After The Times shared its findings with the department, officials declined to address the racial disparities but denied that the deputies use race as a factor when making stops. Instead, deputies pull people over for traffic violations or other infractions and then look for suspicious behavior or other signs from drivers and passengers that contraband may be hidden in the vehicle, the officials said.

Lewis and Benedict reiterated that defense of the highway team Thursday. They criticized The Times’ comparison of the Sheriff’s Department’s traffic stops to activity by the California Highway Patrol, because the CHP patrols a larger area than just that section of the 5 Freeway.

The Times analyzed traffic stops the CHP made in its Newhall patrol area, which includes the section of the 5 Freeway where the Sheriff’s Department team makes stops as well as other freeways and roads in the area. It found that in 37% of the traffic stops made by CHP officers, the driver was Latino. Racial profiling experts who reviewed The Times’ findings said the CHP stops from the wider area provide a meaningful comparison and strongly suggest the Sheriff’s Department team is targeting Latinos.

Lewis also suggested that the reason Latinos are stopped more frequently is because residents of “high agricultural communities” around Bakersfield and elsewhere use the section of the 5 Freeway heavily. Using population demographics in this way does not give a reliable benchmark for examining racial disparities in traffic stops on a freeway, experts said.

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Though the sheriff’s deputies are looking for any type of serious criminal, nearly all of the team’s arrests are for drug-related crimes. The 5 Freeway, they say, is a pipeline for cartels to move drugs up the West Coast and return to Mexico with cash from drug sales as well as weapons purchased in the United States.

The team’s work has resulted in a haul that includes more than a ton of methamphetamine, two tons of marijuana, 600 pounds of cocaine and millions of dollars in suspected drug money. More than 450 motorists arrested by the team have been convicted of drug transportation and other crimes, the vast majority in state court, according to a Times analysis of court data. About the same number of people arrested were not charged with a crime.

Some of the team’s largest busts, however, have fallen apart in federal court. A review of court records found that 11 of 23 cases filed in federal court were dismissed as the credibility of some deputies came under fire or judges ruled that deputies violated the rights of motorists by conducting unconstitutional searches.

Commissioner Sean Kennedy, a former federal public defender for the region who works as executive director of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School, expressed concern that Lewis and the highway team’s supervisor previously told The Times they were unaware of the problems in federal court.

Benedict said that Sheriff’s Department managers had been aware of the dismissals and that most were the result of legal “technicalities.”

Kennedy was not convinced.

“Racial profiling or concerns about credibility regarding traffic stops — in my mind I don’t consider that a technicality,” he said. “It’s important to stop narcotics … but we also want to have equal justice under law.”

5 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the two internal Sheriff’s Department reviews.

4 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the commission hearing

This article was originally published at 1:55 p.m.

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