CHP Accountability and Roadside Searches
...by Bonnie Blackberry
The Civil Liberties Monitoring Project continues to get calls and hear about highway stops where motorists feel pressured into allowing a search of their vehicle. As CLMP continues to hear from these folks, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) continues to say that they don't coerce people into "consenting."|
According to the CHP, the vast majority of searches are consensual. Bottom line, they say, is that nobody has to consent to a search. If the officer has reasonable cause to search, it's considered "probable cause," and permission to search is not necessary. It seems like these days a lot of officers have been trained to keep pressuring and asking until the motorist consents, the officer always expecting to get the consent. People have reported officers saying things like, "Don't make me angry." Or, "We can make things very difficult. It will be quicker if you allow a search. Just let me look and then you can be on your way."
The "probable cause" searches we hear about mostly involve the officer asking if the motorist has any weapons, marijuana or other drugs, followed by, "I smell marijuana," and then a search of the motorist, the passengers and the vehicle. Sometimes something is found and sometimes not.
Reasons for stops vary, from obvious violations to questionable reasons, including having an out-of-state license or having no front license plate on out-of-state vehicles (having a front plate is not required in many states, even though California requires its vehicles to have a front and back plate). Having anything dangling from the rear view mirror is being used by some officers as a reason for a stop, where they'll say that the object is obstructing the view of the driver. Likewise, a tow ball attached to the back bumper has been used as a reason, the officer saying that the tow ball obstructs the view of the license plate.
In an agreement that came about as a result of an investigation completed last year by Gary Webb for the California Legislature, the CHP has started some data collection on all "enforcement contacts." CLMP is looking into finding out what information is being collected and what's available to the public. Police accountability is crucial in a democratic and free society. CLMP's continued monitoring depends on calls from motorists. If you experience a questionable incident or have a friend or family member who has, please let us know. Whether or not you complain to the CHP, we'd like to know who is being searched, the reason given and the results of the search. The Webb investigation revealed that most roadside searches by the CHP were "fruitless" and we'd like to see if anything has changed. Take the time to report questionable incidents to CLMP at (707) 923-4646 and/or, if you feel your stop was race related, contact the American Civil Liberties Union (415)621-2488.
The California legislative bill, SB 1389, referred to as Driving While Black (DWB), a racial profiling bill, has suffered more serious setbacks in a reported deal between Gov. Davis and State Senator Murray, author of the DWB legislation. The gutted bill takes out the data collection requirements for police stops, and replaces it with the police only being required to give the motorist a business card after a stop, placing the responsibility and burden on the motorist to contact a civil rights group, or anyone else interested in monitoring police accountability. The police say they're not using racial profiling or any type of profiling because it's illegal...
At the federal level, HR 1443, the Traffic Stops Statistics Act introduced again this session by Rep. John Conyers (D, Mich), passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on March 1 and is now waiting to be taken to the floor for a vote. Identical language has been introduced in the Senate as S 821, and has lots of co-sponsors. It received a good subcommittee hearing on March 30, but is still awaiting approval by the full Senate Judiciary Committee.
Surprisingly, Sen. Feinstein, who sits on that Committee, has not signed on as a co-sponsor - even in spite of the fact that the bill provides for federal grant money for police agencies. If she decided to support the bill instead of obstructing it, its prospects would be strikingly improved.
(By the way, did you know that the CHP does not do random drug testing on their officers, and neither does the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department? No random tests for police with guns, fast cars and access to illegal drugs. Does any police agency monitor its own, or are drug tests just for everybody else??)