Thursday, February 16, 2006

Searching for consent at Texas traffic stops

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) published by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in collaboration with ACLU of Texas, NAACP of Texas and Texas LULAC. (Conflict alert: I'm listed as an editor in the report's acknowledgements and the authors, Molly Totman and Dwight Steward, are friends and colleagues.)

It's certainly the case that minorities were more likely to be searched at about 2/3 of law enforcement agencies surveyed. But TCJC's 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 TCJC, "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 at these area-specific fact sheets on TCJC's website.


Writer said...

I got a ticket last fall for speeding. The officer clocked me doing 50, the 30 mph sign was BEHIND him and far enough away that I could, and did slow down. I didn't argue with him and requested a trial. I'll fight in court. It's dumb to argue with a cop without witnesses.

If he'd asked to search the vehicle, I would have let him. (No profiling in South Texas, we're all brown). It's not because I have nothing to hide, it's just stupid to refuse. Refusing gives them an excuse to be suspicious. They're like annoying family, give them what they want so they leave you alone. A judge is more likely to believe the officer than me.

Anonymous said...

I'm white live in Harris county and I always refuse to allow an officer to search my vehicle. The last time I refused a search the trooper said, well you just gave me probable cause. Total B.S.!

Yes it is hard to say no to a cop, because they can be intimidating. Yet people need to know their rights, when dealing with police. They have a right to say no to searches. Just because you say no, doesn't mean you have something to hide. It means you know your rights!

Usually after the officer has kept me on the side of the road for 30-45 minutes, I always ask them what criminals could they have caught, if not for wasting their time on me? Then again troopers aren't out catching bad people, there producing revenue for the state.

Anonymous said...

I refused to be searched. TWICE!

For was an opportunity to drag out my soap box.

My sweet husband had to sit in back of the patrol car and they took and kept his fine pocket knife. He really wanted to let them search...but he knew how I felt about it and he didn't want to let me down.

When the officers said we were to wait for the drug dogs I asked one of them, "Why". He finally said "You had different stories".


We were in another state in a new car with Texas plates and we were going to visit my son and tourist around some.

Having committed no so called "crime" or offense of so called "contraband", I took the opportunity to critique the officer's (the one that "stayed" with me when they took my husband to the patrol car) choice of clothing style...terrorism...the end of the WoD and Waco.

The mention of Waco seemed to really chafe him. He jumped towards me and nearly made me burst into tears...but I didn't...just nearly.

They tried to make those poor dogs jump on our car when they didn't respond to anything as they sniffed around the car.

They punished us by giving us a no way true ticket...but knowing we weren't likely to come back and protest it.

SteveHeath said...

As someone who works with many police via my affiliation with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, I have great respect for most rank and file police officers.

However, it's still a drag to read about officers at any level abusing citizens without having probable cause to believe a crime is being committed.

You can help us get LEAP speakers booked in Texas. We have several qualified retired police officers, police chiefs, prison officials, and also a former corrections officer who was a specialist with drug dogs and can testify as to how bogus that whole scam is.

Feel welcome to contact me directly for more info...heath at is my email

Or by phone if preferable. I can return messages with free long distance.

727 797 1349

As a Texas native I am very interested in helping my friends and family there reform failed drug policies.


Steve Heath in Clearwater FL

SteveHeath said...

Oh, the LEAP website of course is at's our Florida mirror page. Just click the Big Gold Badge and you'll be right in the LEAP homepage.