With little fanfare — and nearly no media attention — Illinois Governor Pat Quinn recently signed legislation that extends the collection of data by police of every motorist they stop. The measure was first adopted a few years ago under the leadership of President Barack Obama when he served in the Illinois State Senate. When asked earlier this summer about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the President described this effort in his home state.
Thanks to the President's leadership, we now have five years of detailed data collected by Illinois law enforcement agencies themselves about the racial characteristics of the drivers they target for traffic stops. The data shows that year after year in all parts of our state, drivers of color are more likely to be stopped for routine traffic violations — the types of violations that vast majority of drivers on our roads, streets and highways commit at any given moment. Just released data for calendar year 2008 demonstrates that African-American drivers in Illinois are 25 percent more likely to be stopped and Hispanic divers are 10 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers.
The data also reveals that the disproportionate treatment does not end with the traffic stops. Once stopped, the data shows, minority motorists are far more likely to be asked for "consent" to search their automobiles. These searches are performed when there is no articulable suspicion of wrongdoing and are at the complete discretion of the police. In calendar year 2006, for example, the Illinois State Police were twice as likely to ask an African-American driver for permission to search his or her car and four times more likely to ask an Hispanic driver for permission to search when compared to white motorists. A consultant hired by the Illinois State Police concluded that there is no innocent explanation for the disparate treatment of minorities once they are stopped for a routine traffic infraction.
This lack of an innocent explanation becomes more compelling when one other fact is added: the data collected actually shows that, though police search white drivers less often, they are more likely to find contraband in their possession. Put more directly, an unjustifiable amount of police resources are being directed to search minority drivers that yield less contraband. Despite claims that consent searches are an important law enforcement "tool," the data reveals that for calendar year 2007, as an example, no significant amount of drugs were found in consent searches performed by the Illinois State Police.
On August 25, 2009, Governor Quinn quietly signed into law House Bill 648, a measure that extends data collection for five more years in Illinois. The ACLU of Illinois hopes that this additional data will assist law enforcement officials in our state to take real steps to fix the problem of racial profiling on our highways and streets — steps like ending the use of consent searches. We look forward to evaluating and assessing the data each year.