SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- The California Highway Patrol's commissioner ordered a ban on some car searches Thursday, a move that civil liberties groups say is a tacit admission that officers single out minority drivers for unfair treatment, the Associated Press reported. According to the AP, CHP Commissioner D.O. "Spike" Helmick ordered a six-month moratorium on "consent searches," which officers can conduct only if they receive permission from a driver.
Officers will still search a car if they have probable cause that it was involved in a crime.
Helmick said the moratorium does not reflect any concern that CHP officers target minority drivers.
"Our people clearly do not racially profile," Helmick said. "I think we treat people fairly. We're just trying to be sure."
A team of CHP managers recommended the ban after a review of search data from last July through March, he said. State police began collecting the search data in February 1999 in response to complaints that officers stop and search Latinos and African Americans more often than whites.
Helmick said a preliminary review of the data showed that CHP officers had conducted 1,370 consent searches since July, "a very small number when you look at the almost 3 million traffic stops we make each year."
He said he decided to order the moratorium while analyzing the data because "I simply said, 'I want to know what . . . is going on.' "
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California says it knows what's going on: The group has brought a lawsuit in United States District Court alleging racial profiling by state troopers around San Jose.
The ACLU is focusing on CHP drug task force officers. The group has interpreted data the CHP handed over as part of its case to show that drug officers search Latinos and blacks at far greater rates in some highway corridors.
In a court filing, the ACLU said that after being stopped, Latinos were nearly four times more likely to be searched than whites in the central coast area that includes U.S. 101, and that blacks were more than twice as likely to be searched. The ACLU said CHP data show similar rates in a Central Valley area that includes Interstate 5.
"The drug interdiction officers have the most severe rates of racial profiling," said ACLU lawyer Michelle Alexander.
"Officers are encouraged to use minor traffic violations to stop motorists and then get consent to search their cars for drugs. . . . They're operating on a hunch, on a guess, on a stereotype," said Alexander, who is the head of the ACLU of Northern California's Racial Justice Project.
The ACLU has argued similar search cases against highway officers in other states, including Illinois, New Jersey and Maryland.
"I do not agree with their numbers, but I am not going to try that court case out of court," Helmick said. "They're wrong, they're dead wrong. And I'd be more than happy to prove it."