North Carolina Becomes First State in Nation to Mandate Collection of Traffic Stop Statistics

April 21, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, April 21, 1999

RALEIGH, NC — The ACLU of North Carolina commends the state legislature and Governor Hunt for making North Carolina the first state in the Union to pass “Driving While Black or Brown” legislation.

More properly known as “Senate Bill 76 — Traffic Enforcement Statistics,” this new law requires the Attorney General to compile, maintain and report information regarding traffic stops by state law enforcement officers. The information to be collected includes, among other things, the race, ethnicity, age and gender of the person stopped, whether a search took place and the legal basis for that search, and whether the officers engaged in the use of force.

In North Carolina, only 20 percent of these stops by the Highway Patrol lead to arrests for drug possession or other crimes. But when such tactics are disproportionately visited upon people of color, the constitutional principle of equal justice is shattered.

The ACLU of North Carolina has tackled the issue of improper and illegal race-based vehicle stops by law enforcement for decades. However, our work became more difficult in 1996, when the U.S. Supreme Court created an open season on motorists by ruling that police could use any traffic offense as an excuse to pull a car over and thus be used as a pretext for searching the car and its occupants.

The Court’s decision is one of many in the last decade that can be traced to the failed war on drugs. Misguided crime fighting and drug abatement policies have led to harsh police crackdowns targeting people who fit a “drug courier” or “gang member” profile. Police practices such as traffic stops for minor infractions have been used to target minorities who are not involved in criminal activity and who would not have encountered the criminal justice system but for these racially biased police practices.

In North Carolina, the ACLU been involved in litigation on behalf of two individuals who were subjected to discriminatory searches.

In State v. Pearson, a young black man in a Mercedes was stopped for driving five miles under the speed limit and weaving in his own lane. After Mr. Pearson consented to a search of his car, the trooper then frisked him, claiming that it was his policy to frisk a motorist whenever he was given consent for a car search. The trooper found drugs in a pat-down frisk and Mr. Pearson was arrested and charged.

The trial court held that consent to search the car extended to a frisk of the person and even if it did not, the driver in this case consented to the frisk when he did not object. An appeals court agreed, holding that there was reasonable suspicion to pat down the defendant.

The case then went to the state supreme court, where the ACLU of North Carolina filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the frisk violated Pearson’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. On May 8, 1998, the high court agreed, holding that a driver who consents to a search of a vehicle does not necessarily consent to a search of his person as well.

In the second case, the ACLU represented motorist Stacey Washington, an African-American male who was stopped in late December 1994 for unknown reasons while driving a rental car through North Carolina on I-85. He, his passengers and the rental car were searched without consent and detained for two-and-a-half hours by a member of the Highway Patrol’s Special Emphasis Team.

When nothing was found, Mr. Washington was ticketed for driving without a valid North Carolina license, despite the fact that he is a Maryland resident and had a valid license from that state. The charges were subsequently dismissed. The ACLU of North Carolina took on Washington’s search and seizure case, which the state promptly settled.

We took Mr. Washington’s case both to vindicate his rights and because the ACLU believed that there might be a pattern and practice of race based searches by the Highway Patrol.

After the case was settled, we discussed it with Joe Neff, a reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer, who investigated all of the stops and searches conducted by the Highway Patrol’s Special Emphasis Team. Neff’s research revealed that state troopers on that team ticket black men for minor traffic offenses at nearly twice the rate other officers ticket black men. Neff’s article about the highway drug unit’s activities came out during the legislature’s 1996 short session.

In response, Senator Frank Ballance, then Chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Justice and Public Safety, inserted a special provision into the budget bill mandating that the Division of the State Highway Patrol and the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety report to the legislature on their methods for stopping and searching vehicles for suspected illegal activities. The Highway Patrol was also required to keep information about its stops including who is stopped, their race, their age and whether or not they were searched. This information has been compiled for the past two years.

But because of a special provision, the reports made to the General Assembly did not provide the detail or analysis necessary to evaluate the stops made by the Highway Patrol. We are pleased that Senator Ballance’s traffic enforcement statistic bill will ensure that this information is compiled, analyzed, presented to the Governor and legislature, and made available to the public.

In other parts of the country, Representative John Conyers, D-MI, reintroduced federal legislation last Wednesday encouraging police departments to keep detailed records of traffic stops, including the race and ethnicity of the person stopped. The Conyers bill passed the House in the last Congress, but it was not considered by the Senate. This year’s bill builds on the momentum from successful litigation and state legislative efforts.

And in San Diego, Police Chief Jerry Sanders announced earlier this year that the San Diego Police Department would be the first law enforcement agency in the nation to voluntarily collect traffic enforcement statistics. The SDPD is currently working closely with the ACLU, the NAACP and the Urban League to design and implement the data collection effort.

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