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More Damning Data Against Racial Profiling

Activists recommend abolishing "consent" searches

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Feb. 24, 2006

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's third annual report on racial profiling in police traffic stops reveals that while so-called "consent" searches are down, such searches are still more likely to be used against minorities. Consent searches are a discretionary law enforcement tool in which an officer requests permission to search a person or vehicle but has no legal reason – such as probable cause – to do so. Overall, the TCJC reports that in 2004 consent searches made up 30% of all searches conducted by 201 of the state's largest law enforcement agencies (those that issued at least 3,000 traffic citations). The TCJC found that two-thirds of those agencies reported searching blacks and Latinos more often than whites – 37% searched blacks twice as often as whites, while 26% searched Latinos twice as often as whites. The report also notes that 24% of the agencies reported searching whites at higher rates than for blacks.

Locally, the number of consent searches conducted by the Austin Police Department declined considerably in 2004 – from 2,141 in 2003 to just 804 in 2004, or just 7% of the total number of searches. But the report notes that blacks and Latinos are still more than three times as likely as whites to be subjected to consent searches – of the 177,741 drivers stopped in 2004, 1.4% of blacks were subjected to consent search, compared to .76% of Latino drivers and .31% of white drivers. The TCJC also reports that consent searches comprised 10.9% of all searches conducted by Travis Co. Sheriff's Office deputies in 2004, and that blacks were .8 times more likely, and Latinos 2.9 times more likely, to be subjected to consent search than were whites. (In the three-county area – Travis, Williamson, and Hays counties – the TCJC reports that, by far, the Georgetown Police Department conducted the most consent searches, with 36.5% of all searches conducted by consent.)

In all, the TCJC is again recommending that law enforcement agencies either do away with consent searches altogether – indeed, the so-called hit rate for these searches, or the number of times that a consent search yields contraband drugs or weapons, is woefully small (in 2004, APD reported a 12% hit rate) – or require officers to obtain written and/or recorded consent from drivers prior to conducting a consent search. The APD already requires officers to get written consent, which police officials have said accounts for the marked decline in the number of consent searches conducted each year (in 2004, the number dropped by more than 60%).

While a legislative proposal (SB 1195) to require written consent earned bipartisan support in the Legislature in 2005, Gov. Rick Perry ultimately vetoed it with the puzzling notation that there was "insufficient information available" for him to determine whether the measure would place "too onerous" a burden on law enforcement or would actually "provide additional protections" to the public. Still, the TCJC insists once again, based now on three years worth of data, that lawmakers revisit the subject. "Over-searching practices divert resources from crime-fighting tasks that improve public safety," reads the report. "Consent searches in particular rarely uncover wrongdoing and are more likely to target minorities. Police management, community leaders, and policy-makers should more closely examine officers' overall routines and encourage more efficient, bias-free, and cost-effective use of their time by limiting consent searches." (See the entire report online at www.criminaljusticecoalition.org.)

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