People of color have long suspected they were under increased scrutiny by police, and a recent Stanford University study confirms that black and Latino drivers are searched during traffic stops at a higher rate than whites. This was true despite the fact that Latinos are statistically less likely than whites to be pulled over in the first place.
Researchers with Stanford University’s Open Policing Project reviewed records on more than 64 million traffic stops performed in 20 U.S. states between 2011 and 2015. They had collected records on about 50,000 traffic stops performed each day and entering them into a database. Some states provided more information than others. Their goal was to determine whether any statistically significant evidence of racial bias could be found.
First, they noted that African-Americans are stopped more often than whites, and that whites are stopped more often than Latinos. This is not good evidence of bias, however, because the disparities could be explained by neutral factors such as driving behavior.
Eve taking into account the location, date and time of the stop, the drivers’ ages and their genders, however, the researchers found that the minority drivers were searched far more often. “We find that black and Hispanic drivers have approximately twice the odds of being searched relative to white drivers,” the researchers said in their paper.
Could the higher rate of searches be explained by the black and Latino drivers being more likely to have contraband? The researchers considered this by comparing the search rate with the “hit rate,” or how often drivers were actually found to be carrying drugs or other illegal materials. The hit rates for African-Americans and whites were equal, and the hit rate for Latinos was actually six points lower than either.
In other words, the researchers were able to show statistically that officers search African-Americans and Latinos more often than whites, even though whites are equally likely as African-Americans and more likely than Latinos to have contraband. This evidence was found statistically significant.
The researchers were careful to say that, while they do have statistical evidence of bias in police officers’ inclination to search minority motorists over whites, the conclusions that can be drawn are limited. For example, there is insufficient evidence of whether search policies differ between jurisdictions.
As a final note, the researchers found that legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington had resulted in far fewer searches of motorists being performed in general.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to be calling for an overall crackdown on drug use in the United States, viewing it as the best way to reduce deaths from opioid overdoses. Speaking before the annual meeting of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, Sessions said that 2016 saw the highest number of drug overdose deaths so far.
Citing preliminary data for 2016, Sessions said there were nearly 60,000 overdose deaths last year. He called the epidemic “the top lethal issue” in the U.S.
“Our current drug epidemic is indeed the deadliest in American history. We’ve seen nothing like it,” he told the group, according to the Associated Press.
The Justice Department has announced new efforts to crack down on drug use in recent months. In May, Sessions reversed a reform put in place by the Obama administration which limited mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders charged with marijuana possession. Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to charge drug users — even low-level marijuana users — with the harshest possible crime they can prove.
In July, Sessions said he had asked the federal Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety to “undertake a review of existing policies in the areas of charging, sentencing, and marijuana.” Along with his move in May, this led reform advocates to conclude that a marijuana crackdown is likely on the way.
In August, he announced he would send 12 federal prosecutors to various cities hard-hit by the opioid epidemic. These prosecutors, part of DOJ efforts to cut down on opioid abuse, will be focusing on investigating opioid scams and healthcare fraud.
“We must not capitulate, intellectually or morally, to drug use. We must create and foster a culture that’s hostile to drug use,” Sessions said at the Tuesday meeting.
Worryingly for legalization states, Sessions also accused the media, Hollywood and unnamed public officials of “sending mixed messages about the harmfulness of drugs.”
Sessions may have been referring to cannabis. The attorney general is widely known to oppose marijuana and sought to end a federal moratorium on DOJ interference with medical marijuana regulation. That moratorium was re-upped in June.
If you look under a tarp for what appears to be a motorcycle, have you searched the motorcycle? Or have you searched the tarp?
That question may be central to the appeal of a warrantless search meant to find a motorcycle that had been stolen years earlier from New York. Police in Virginia apparently spent a great deal of time and energy chasing down that motorcycle and its rider.
The case began during a routine patrol in 2013. A police officer tried to pull over an orange-and-black Suzuki motorcycle, but the rider sped away. About six weeks later, another officer noticed what appeared to be the same motorcycle traveling at 100 mph in a 55 mph zone — and then speeding up to 140 mph in order to evade the officer.
That second officer got the license plate number, which led the investigation to the last person who had registered the cycle. That man admitted having sold the motorcycle to the defendant after warning him that it was stolen.
A couple of months later, the defendant was attempting to register an Acura at the DMV when he aroused suspicion. The suspicion turned out to be unfounded, but the police arrived and accused him of being the elusive motorcyclist. He denied knowing anything about the bike, but officers found a photo of it on the defendant’s Facebook page — right next to the Acura he had been trying to register.
This photo and help from an informant led the police to the defendant’s home. There, an officer noticed what appeared to be a motorcycle in the driveway, covered by a tarp.
At this point, there was no concrete indication that the bike was the orange-and-black Suzuki in question — until the officer lifted the tarp and checked the bike’s appearance and VIN.
The defendant was convicted of receiving stolen property and sentenced to three years in prison. He appealed that conviction to the Virginia Court of Appeals, claiming that the police should not have lifted the tarp on the man’s property without first obtaining a search warrant.
Search warrants are generally required unless there is a legal exception. In this case, the appellate court ruled that the so-called “automobile exception” applied, meaning that no search warrant was required. Instead, what was required was probable cause to believe the stolen motorcycle would be found there. The automobile exception essentially allows any motor vehicle to be searched without a warrant as long as there is probable cause.
One judge dissented, claiming that it was not the motor vehicle that was searched but rather the tarp — so the automobile exception does not apply. Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.