Continued Use of Race, Over-Use of Consent Searches Reported

Sweeping report reveals some improvement, continued problems in the way agencies use consent searches.

AUSTIN - Many Texas law enforcement agencies continue to use consent searches inconsistently and inappropriately, according to a report released February 16, 2006, by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition titled Searching for Consent: An Analysis of Racial Profiling Data in Texas.  As a result, many Texans, regardless of race, are subjected to over-searching.  The report warns that these over-searching policies ultimately diminish public safety, and it urges departments to use more efficient policing practices.

"The over-use and inconsistent use of consent searches in Texas is not just a minority issue or civil rights issue, but also a public safety issue," said Ana Yáñez-Correa, Executive Director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and ACLU of Texas board member.  "Consent searches divert resources from crime-fighting tasks that improve public safety.  Our officers' time and energy should be spent on productive techniques, not on a hit or miss tactic that is diminishing the community's faith in law enforcement."

Report data indicate that 2.3 percent all drivers (103,705) statewide were subjected to consent searches at traffic stops in 2004.  The report found that some departments conducted consent searches of all races much more frequently than the statewide average.  In addition, departments that consent searched minorities at higher rates also tended to consent search Anglos more often. 

"We hope this report can be used as a tool by law enforcement across the state to take a look at their disparities and make policy changes that will improve the way they conduct searches and protect the public," said Yáñez-Correa.   

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's report did reveal some encouraging news.  From 2003 to 2004, about half of departments reported that they decreased the size of the racial disparity in consent searches they conducted, according to their own self-reported data.

Nevertheless, the report revealed that consent searches rarely uncover wrongdoing and are more likely to target minorities.  Approximately two out of three departments still use race as a factor in conducting consent searches, and Blacks and Latinos continue to be searched more frequently than Anglos. "If the law is colorblind, then race-based searches need to go," said Mary Ramos, State Deputy Director for the League of United Latin American Citizens of Texas.  "This report shows that Texas still has miles to go before all law enforcement agencies start looking for what's in the trunk and not at the color of the person behind the wheel."

Gary Bledsoe, President of the Texas State Conference of branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, agreed: "The sad truth for people of color in Texas is that even if you are as innocent as the driven snow, the color of your skin dictates that you are much more likely to be stopped and then searched by police.  However, the positive side is that there is now empirical proof of this, so hopefully Texas lawmakers will decide that people of color should be treated with dignity like all other citizens, and actually pass some laws to curb this behavior."

In addition to the inefficiency of and ongoing racial disparities produced by consent searches, another concern lies in the constitutionality of this police practice.  "The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right to be free from unreasonable searches.  Law enforcement shouldn't be allowed to force people into giving up their rights at traffic stops through trickery or intimidation.  The practice violates fundamental principles of protected liberty," said Will Harrell, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

To address the problems with consent searches and better assist law enforcement in implementing policies that serve the public's best interests, the report makes several recommendations to the Texas Legislature based on its findings, including: 1) Texas should adopt the search policy used by New Jersey, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and the California Highway Patrol, which stipulates that a "legal basis" be required for conducting searches; and 2) law enforcement agencies should be required to collect and report some additional data elements that will aid them in identifying and implementing new and effective practices consistent with their mission to protect and serve all Texans.

This year's report is the third by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on behalf of the Campaign to End Racial Profiling, members of which include the Texas State Conference of branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, League of United Latin American Citizens of Texas, American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.  The Campaign was instrumental in passing legislation against racial profiling in 2001, making racial profiling data available for the first time in Texas 

The entire report, including agency breakdowns, may be viewed, online, here.