Race, police stops and car searches

Say you're driving from Chicago to Springfield and an Illinois State Police officer pulls you over for speeding or because your car's taillight is broken. You pull over to the side of the road. You turn over your license and registration through the driver's side window. The officer processes the violation.

Then he or she comes back to your car and asks you a question: Can the officer search your car? You have the right to say no.

When that question is on the table, however, the vast majority
of drivers in Illinois answer with a yes.

In 2009, white drivers allowed these "consent searches" to happen 96
percent of the time when an officer asked to conduct one, black drivers agreed
97 percent of the
time, and 98 percent of Hispanic drivers said yes to such a search, according to data compiled by the Illinois
branch of the American Civil Liberties Union based on
statistics state government collects annually.

Who gets asked to have their cars searched breaks down on racial lines, however. Between 2004
and 2009, "Hispanic motorists were 2.7 to 4.0 times more likely to be
consent searched, and African-American motorists were 1.8 to 3.2 times
more likely," the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a letter (PDF) sent earlier this month to the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

At
the same time, between 2007 and 2009, officers were more likely to find
contraband material on white drivers who accepted a search than on minority drivers, the group's analysis found.

"All I can see is data
that, year after year, shows a disparate racial impact on how they carry
out consent searches," said Harvey Grossman, the group's legal director
in Illinois.

"It's based on a hunch," he said of which drivers are
asked to have their cars searched. "It's clear that the [Illinios State Police] have
hunches more frequently that are wrong about black and Hispanic drivers
than white drivers."

The group has a simple solution to the
resolve the issue: ban consent searches. Grossman argued there's
something "inherently coercive" in being on the side of the road and
having officers ask if they can search your car. The group has pushed
state government to regulate consent searches since at least 2005, to no
avail.

That's where the federal civil rights litigators could come in, Grossman said.

"We
hope the department of justice ... asks for a full explanation of this
conduct," he said. "We hope the department of justice has the [Illinois State Police]
terminate asking for consent searches of cars. It is clear this is a
practice that has been abused."

A spokesman for Gov. Pat Quinn said the governor has ordered the state police to investigate the practice.

"The governor's office takes matters of this nature very seriously," according to a statement sent to The Chicago Reporter.

--Micah Maidenberg

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  • Where is the data reflecting who gets asked to be consent searched? You make the statement "Who gets asked to have their cars searched breaks down on racial lines, however", but you don't include any reference or data to validate the statement. Am I missing something in the article?

  • I'm glad to see this issue being addressed but what about the Chicago Police Department's de facto stop and search policy? My son and his friends seem to accept being pulled over or stopped on the sidewalk and being told to empty their pockets or, "Hands on the hood." as part of going outside. Seldom is a reason given and I'd say even more seldom is the stop legal not to even mention the search. I have explained to my son his rights and how he should respond to the situation as have people at a youth services organization where he does activities. Anything outside of mute compliance generates more hostility from the officers who have stopped him.

  • Hi! I was so fascinated to learn all these. This is great stuff. Thanks for sharing mate.

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