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Analysis: Texas searches get scrutiny

By PHIL MAGERS   |   March 14, 2005 at 2:03 PM   |   Comments

DALLAS, March 11 (UPI) -- Texas legislators are being asked to ban consent searches during traffic stops after a statewide study found that police officers were more likely to search blacks and Latinos than Anglos.

A bipartisan group of three lawmakers introduced bills supported by a coalition of civil rights groups that sponsored the study reported to be the most exhaustive racial-profiling study ever done in the United States.

Researchers said about 60 percent of the police departments reported searching blacks and Latinos at higher rates than whites, but they found no more contraband or "hits" in the vehicles of the minorities than they did of the white drivers.

The Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a member of the coalition, said the study showed that the consent searches or "no cause" searches are harassment and an unnecessary intrusion into the lives of everyday citizens.

"Law enforcement time and resources should be spent investigating real crimes, not searching law abiding citizens without any justification or reasonable suspicion," said Will Harrell, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Steward Research Group compiled the study for the ACLU of Texas, NAACP of Texas, the League of United Latin American Citizens of Texas and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The researchers examined reports from 1,060 police and sheriff's departments required under a state law.

The report, "Don't Mind If I take a Look, Do Ya? An Examination of Consent Searches and Hit Rates at Texas Traffic Stops," was compiled from 2003 police reports, the latest available at the time.

Four years ago Texas enacted a law than banned racial profiling by police, requiring annual reports from agencies on traffic stops. There was no provision for an annual analysis of the data, which prompted the independent review through the use of the state's open-records law.

Consent searches have come under scrutiny in recent years, largely in the courts. The practice has been banned in Hawaii, Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island. The California Highway Patrol imposed a temporary moratorium on the practice after a civil rights lawsuit.

Consent searches come into play every day in traffic stops across the nation when an officer doesn't have probable cause for a search. If he has a hunch, he asks the driver for consent to search the vehicle. The driver can legally refuse.

Harrell said that doesn't happen very often though because the average driver feels intimidated by the officer. In some cases the driver may not know his legal rights and submit to the search to avoid a confrontation, he said.

Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a sponsor of the legislation, said as a state senator and an attorney he knows his rights to decline the search of his vehicle if there is no probable cause.

"I am concerned that others in my community, however, are subjected to undue harassment because they are unaware they have the right to say no to an invasion of their privacy," said the Democrat from McAllen in South Texas.

When the Austin Police Department recently began requiring written consent to search a vehicle at a traffic stop, the number of consent searches dropped by more than 60 percent, according to the ACLU.

A spokesman for a coalition of Texas law-enforcement agencies said the consent search is a way for the average citizen to cooperate in preventing crime.

"The consensual search is saying, 'OK I want to participate actively in helping you stop crime in the neighborhood and community,'" said Charley Wilkison, political director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

Wilkison said most people in the United States know they have a right to refuse an officer's request for a search. He said in Texas there's a long history of cooperation between the public and law enforcement.

Law officers have a duty to search vehicles when they have probable cause or a warrant, Harrell said, and every citizen expects them to do that.

"If they stuck to those searches and didn't bother with the frivolous, fruitless ones they would have more time to do probable cause-based arrests," he said. "They would have more time to discover who is on our roads with a warrant pending against them."

The survey of traffic-stop reports from more than 1,000 Texas police and sheriff's departments found that three out of five of them searched blacks and Latinos at higher rates than they did whites.

"Consent searches are only a tool for biased policing and should be banned," stated Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP.

There are a few signs that support for "no cause" searches is beginning to weaken in Texas, the ACLU says. The Austin police, for example, have announced they will try to reduce searches by 40 percent over the next two years.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

© 2005 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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