ACLU of Illinois turns to US Department of Justice for Help Reigning in Consent Searches by the Illinois State Police

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed an administrative complaint on June 7th and asked the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation into “the substantial racial disparate impact caused by Illinois State Police consent searches of Hispanic and African American motorists.” Data collected and reported over the past several years demonstrate that ISP troopers are more likely to ask Hispanic and African American motorists for consent to search their vehicles, but are more likely to find contraband when consent searching a car driven by a Caucasian motorist.

A consent search often occurs when a law enforcement official lacks probable cause or even reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, yet nonetheless asks a civilian for permission to search their vehicle or person. The ACLU complaint points out that motorists’ consent is not truly voluntary, often involving a degree of coercion.  Illinois State Police data indicate that more than 95% of motorists grant consent when asked.  The search is often intrusive and publically humiliating, and because the search is initiated based on the subjective hunch of individual police officers, consent searches are inherently susceptible to bias.   In 2009, the latest year with publically available data, Hispanic motorists were 3 times more likely than white motorists to be consent searched, but white motorists were 3 times more likely to be found with contraband.

In the 60-page complaint to the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division and the Chief of the Special Litigation Section, the ACLU of Illinois requests the U.S. Department of Justice require the ISP to bar all consent searches – a step that the ACLU of Illinois and other civil rights groups have urged the past two Governors to take without a response.  Gov. Pat Quinn has asked the state police director to review the issue, according to Quinn spokesman Grant Klinzman.

“Years of data make clear that consent searches by the ISP are conducted in a racially disparate manner,” said Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois. “Because of the inaction of state officials we are compelled to ask the federal government to protect motorists of color in Illinois from being subjected to unnecessary, invasive and racially discriminatory searches.”  Grossman said the ACLU decided to ask the Department of Justice to intervene because it would be quicker than a court case, and because the agency’s civil rights division has taken an active role under Obama.

Traffic stop data collection at the state level began in 2004 and was to expire at the end of 2007, but a 2006 act extended the time period and required the data collection to include whether or not contraband was found following the search, in order to better measure the police “hit rate”, or the times they guessed correctly that something would be found in a search.  Gov. Quinn signed a law in 2009 that further extended the collection period to 2015.  One of the most publically discussed results of the traffic study is the minority stop ratio, which is derived from an estimate of minority drivers in a community based on US Census data.  The stop ratio compares the “expected” number of stops by race and ethnicity to the actual stops in order to measure bias.  The consent search measure used by the ACLU, however, does not depend on any motorist population estimates – it is simply the percentage of all drivers stopped of a particular race who were asked for consent to search.  Other data collected in the traffic study includes the time, duration, reason for stop, outcome (e.g. citation or warning), and a location code or police beat.

Consent searches by Champaign and Urbana police have dropped dramatically since the initial year of the study, from more than 150 (Champaign & Urbana combined) in 2004 to only 39 in 2009.  However, the University of Illinois police department has increased the use of consent searches, from less than 50 in 2004 to 80 in 2009. In the years 2007-2009 (all the data available so far that shows “contraband found”) African-American drivers in Champaign-Urbana and on campus were more than twice as likely to be asked for a consent search, but white drivers subjected to consent searches were nearly twice as likely to have contraband.

Traffic Stop Data:

ACLU of Illinois:

ACLU complaint:

About William Brown

William Brown is President of the Champaign County Chapter of the ACLU of Illinois.
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