Friday, April 26, 2024

Most 'contraband' found at Texas traffic stops results in no arrest; nearly 50k arrests for Class C misdemeanors in 2023

I had cause this morning to dig around in Texas' 2023 traffic-stop data, so decided to post a few high/lowlights.

This data, published annually in a cumbersome, user-unfriendly spreadsheet by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (see here), only includes arrests, searches, etc. at traffic stops.

After Sandra Bland's death, Texas changed its laws in 2017 to require greatly expanded reporting about police activitiy at traffic stops. Framing this as "racial profiling" data, as the press does, really undersells this dataset: IRL, it's a vast window onto traffic-stop activity with race as only one of many variables.

For starters, it's the only way we even know how many traffic stops are made, since most do not involve citations. Total stops increased nearly 200,000 from 2022 (196,252, or a 2.66% increase), with 7,387,419 stops last year overall. The number of citations written, though, declined by about 12,000 to 2,769,610. So statewide, Texas saw more traffic stops but fewer citations per stop, with officers ending the stop without a citation nearly two thirds of the time.

In 2023, 49,796 people were arrested at Texas traffic stops solely for Class C misdemeanors -- the lowest level criminal offense for which the maximum punishment is only a fine, not jail time. These arrests occurred either for violation of local ordinances or, more commonly, for the underlying traffic violation for which they drivers were stopped. People of course can be and are arrested for other Class Cs -- e.g., "camping" ordinances aimed at homeless people -- outside of the traffic-stop setting.

The number of Class C arrests at traffic stops has been declining (>64k in 2019), but this still represents nearly 50,000 Texans taken to jail for offenses for which the maximum punishment under law does not include jail time. (Before the Sandra Bland Act, police routinely contended this almost never happened -- now we know it's quite common.)

Drivers were searched at about 4.7% of 2023 traffic stops -- 346,846 times. Of these, 23% (80,348) were instances when officers asked for consent to search because they had no probable cause. 

Cops arrested suspects at traffic stops 201,149 times, or at about 2.7% of stops. Taking away the Class C arrests mentioned above and another 54,540 arrested for outstanding warrants (mostly related to unpaid traffic tickets), the rest (96,813) were for alleged violations of Texas' penal code.

But things get squirrelier when we look at contraband discovered. Out of those searches, officers supposedly found "contraband" of some sort 151,123 times, which would give them an impressive "hit rate" of 43.6%.

However, drilling down, we discover that in the overwhelming majority of circumstances when contraband is discovered, the driver is not arrested! That means the "contraband" either wasn't illegal or was an extremely trivial item. Sufficient contraband was found to justify an arrest only 54,422 times, for a hit rate of 15.7%.

Three quarters of the time arrests were made, it was for reasons besides finding contraband -- warrants, Class C violations, or other alleged crimes discovered during the stop.

Use of force in this data set has a few problems, with a couple of departments (Nolanville and Palm Valley PDs, for example) reporting use of force at every traffic stop, which is clearly an error. And the Galveston County Sheriff reported an extraordinary use of force rate -- 574 incidents out of only 12,840 traffic stops -- or 4.4%, which seems either highly unlikely (my guess) or hair-on-fire alarming, if true.

Among larger agencies with more consistent reporting, Houston PD continued to be the big outlier on use of force, recording 3,358 incidents out of 339,715 stops, or nearly 1% of the time (0.99%). That's a lot! The Department of Public Safety used force 2nd most often -- 1,318 times, but made more than 1.375 million traffic stops. So the RATE at which they used force was 1/10th that of the Houston PD. Even so, DPS only reported use of force at 473 stops in 2022, so that's nearly a 200% year over year increase!

While not at HPD levels, use of force rates at the Tarrant County Sheriff (at 0.52% of stops), Midland (0.35%) and Austin PD (0.26%) were also notably high.

Complaints were filed by motorists 4,077 times in 2023, which seems remarkably low. But people probably don't complain because it's pointless. Out of those 4,077, only 4 resulted in sustained complaints that resulted in officer discipline. Out of 7.4 million stops.