ACLU Racial Profiling Lawsuit in CA is Already Showing Results

May 29, 2001 12:00 am


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LOS ANGELES–A federal class action lawsuit that charges that the California Highway Patrol uses racially biased patrolling standards is challenging fundamental drug war tactics in California, the Los Angeles Times reported.

According to the Times, the lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, alleges that vehicles driven by black or Latino motorists are up to three times as likely as those driven by whites to be searched by state drug interdiction officers.

The lawsuit also charges that these officers routinely use intimidation, ruses and drivers’ ignorance of their civil rights to obtain consent to search.

The lawsuit takes aim at officers who are trying to crackdown on drugs in Central California, particularly the burgeoning methamphetamine trade.

It asks that they cease the use of consent searches and “pretext stops,” in which officers use minor traffic infractions to conduct more extensive searches.

CHP Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick has repeatedly denied that his department engages in racial profiling. But last month, he ordered a six-month moratorium on consent searches. Some law enforcement officials say that move has hindered drug enforcement.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU in 1998 on behalf of three plaintiffs, was certified as a class action earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose. Trial is not expected until next year.

According to ACLU calculations of CHP data, Latinos driving along coastal and Central California highways are twice as likely to be stopped as whites and more than three times as likely to have their vehicles searched by specially trained drug interdiction officers.

In the Coastal Division, blacks were twice as likely as whites to be searched by drug interdiction officers.

Jon Streeter, an attorney representing the drivers, blamed the imbalance on “an official policy, a collection of techniques that are carried out on the highways and disproportionately affects minorities. These practices are being taught to officers statewide.”

CHP training manuals outline several techniques to stop motorists and then search their vehicles

without probable cause. “There are many ways to legally stretch your contact time with the suspect,” reads one document.

It details how officers can extend a detention by examining a motorist’s driver’s license, rechecking driver information through different databases unnecessarily, and inspecting the federal certification sticker and any auto parts etched with the vehicle identification number.

The documents also explain how officers can request consent searches even after the motorist is released from a traffic stop: “Wish the motorist a safe trip, [tell him] ‘Don’t forget to buckle up!!’ Give instructions about how to safely reenter the freeway and just as they turn to retreat to their vehicle, pop your questions . . . work your magic. [The] degree of criminal activity required to justify a consensual encounter is zero.”

Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has affirmed the use of such tactics.

Most recently, two 1996 rulings, one affirming the use of pretext traffic stops and the other allowing police to ask for consent even after motorists are released from detention, further expanded police powers.

Perhaps the most sweeping decision came in March, when the High Court ruled 5 to 4 that it was constitutional for officers to arrest traffic violators, rather than simply citing them. Opponents said that practice abandons the standard of probable cause.

Civil rights advocates trace the CHP’s increased reliance on consent searches and pretext stops to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Operation Pipeline, a federal drug interdiction program that spread throughout the country during the mid-1980s.

Racial profiling has existed, in one form or another, at least since the early 20th century. But only recently have courts and legislatures addressed the issue.

ACLU lawyers said they are seeking damages for their three named plaintiffs but are more interested in forcing the state to collect more data on race and ethnicity and abandon consent searches and pretext stops.

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