Searching for consent at Texas traffic stops

Feb 20, 2006 Print This Post

A funny thing happened on the way to interpreting Texas’ racial profiling data — it turned out minorities weren’t the only ones being subjected to unnecessary searches at traffic stops.

Thirty percent of searches at Texas traffic stops are so-called “consent searches” performed (ostensibly) with drivers’ permission without probable cause according to a new report (pdf) by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, in collaboration with ACLU of Texas, NAACP of Texas, and Texas LULAC. 

It’s certainly the case that minorities were more likely to be searched at about 2/3 of law enforcement agencies surveyed. But this study reveals that large disparities also exist from department to department that in many cases are larger than disparities by race.

For example, at the Austin PD, 7.3% of searches at traffic stops were “consent searches”; at the Travis County Sheriff the figure was 10.9%. By contrast, just south of here in Hays County, 53.1% of searches performed by Sheriff’s deputies at traffic stops were consent searches. At the San Marcos PD, the figure was 55.3%. (Both Austin PD and the Travis County Sheriff require officers to obtain written consent before searching vehicles at traffic stops without probable cause.)

Bottom line: That means the Hays County Sheriff and San Marcos PD are focusing significantly more police resources, comparatively speaking, on searches where officers don’t have probable cause to search than their neighbors to the north. Indeed, some departments are spending even more time than that on unproductive consent searches. In my hometown of Tyler, 67.2 percent of searches at traffic stops were consent searches. At the El Paso PD and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department, the figures were 76% and 77%, respectively.

Officers’ time is a valuable resource, and spending it on consent searches that mostly discover nothing isn’t worth the taxpayers’ investment. Reported the study, “A police union representative told the Texas legislature in 2005 that in his experience, ‘the vast majority of the time we found nothing.’” (The Legislature last year passed SB 1195 which would have required officers to obtain written or recorded consent to search at traffic stops, but Governor Perry vetoed the bill.)

Looking at search figures by race reveals equally interesting patterns. Certainly racial disparities exist that are still troubling and important to address. At the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, for example, blacks are 1.5 times more likely to be consent searched than whites, and Latinos are 1.3 times more likely to undergo such searches. In neighboring Fort Bend County, those figures are 1.7 and 1.4 times, respectively — sounds pretty similar, right?

Digging deeper, though, it turns out drivers of all races are much more likely to be searched by the Fort Bend Sheriff’s Department than the Harris County Sheriff. In Harris County, deputies consent search blacks at 4.6% of stops, Latinos at 4.1% of stops, and whites at 3.04%. In Fort Bend County, though, deputies search all races at much higher rates: Blacks were consent searched at 18.42% of stops, Latinos at 15.75%, and whites at 11.11% of traffic stops.

In other words, white drivers stopped by deputies in Fort Bend County are more than twice as likely to be subjected to consent searches than black people stopped by the Harris County Sheriff! The racial disparities are significant, but the Fort Bend Sheriff’s Department engages in consent searches much more frequently than its more populous and racially diverse neighbor.

More to come soon on the details and recommendations from this fascinating report. But Texas bloggers (or the MSM, for that matter), who’d like to check out similar stats for their local jurisdictions should download the full report (pdf), or look for area-specific fact sheets on TCJC’s website.