Racial bias in CHP searches: Latinos, blacks more likely to have vehicles examined after being pulled over

Latinos and blacks pulled over by the California Highway Patrol are far more likely to be searched than white drivers, a Chronicle analysis of more than 3.3 million statewide CHP traffic stops shows.

Although members of all races were equally likely to be stopped by the CHP between July 1999 and July 2000, Latinos were twice as likely as whites to have their cars or personal possessions searched after being pulled over, the agency’s records show. Blacks were 1.5 times more likely to be searched than whites, and Asians were significantly less likely to be searched after being stopped.

The disparities were even more striking in the Bay Area, where Latinos and African Americans were searched more than 2.5 times as often as whites.

“On its face, the data suggest that officers are targeting Latinos and African Americans,” said Kevin Johnson, a law professor and associate dean at the University of California at Davis Law School, who specializes in racial profiling issues. “This isn’t proof of racial profiling, but it suggests that something is going on that requires some sort of an explanation from the CHP.”

CHP Commissioner Dwight “Spike” Helmick would not comment on The Chronicle’s findings, but said the agency is looking into the search rates and trying to determine whether there is a problem.

“I feel very strongly that the CHP is a professional organization that treats people fairly,” Helmick said. “I want to look at the numbers, and if it turns out that some class of people is being treated unfairly, I want to address that.”


Two years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit charging that the CHP was routinely stopping a disproportionate number of minority motorists for minor vehicle offenses and then asking permission to search their vehicles.

As part of a nationwide drug interdiction program called “Operation Pipeline,” the suit contends, the CHP was using a set of vague “indicators” to identify people who officers believe match the profiles of drug couriers.

According to a 1998 CHP training manual, those indicators range from bumper stickers that say “God is my co-pilot” to vehicles with high mileage and “mismatched occupants,” a category ACLU attorneys say includes interracial couples.


“The CHP has snagged a lot of law-abiding people in their big net,” said Edward Hollingshed, a 63-year-old African American resident of Merced. Hollingshed filed a racial profiling complaint with the ACLU after being stopped by the CHP seven times in 40 days in a new red Cougar he bought in February 1999.

Hollingshed said five of the stops resulted in his car being searched, including one case in which he was held at gunpoint by the officers. Three of the stops resulted in traffic tickets. But Hollingshed said police never found any reason to arrest him.

“The combination of a black man driving a new red sports car late at night was more than they could resist,” said Hollingshed, who works a graveyard shift as a postal worker.

In April, after analyzing internal traffic stop data, the agency enacted a six-month moratorium on consent searches in which an officer asks the driver’s permission to search a vehicle, even though there is no probable cause to suspect a crime.

CHP Commissioner Helmick said the moratorium was enacted for procedural reasons so that officers could receive training on how to record such searches.


But San Francisco attorney Jon Streeter, who is working with the ACLU on the CHP lawsuit, believes The Chronicle’s findings strongly suggest that the Highway Patrol engages in racial profiling.

“We think that these disparities . . . result from officers stereotyping minorities as potential criminals,” said Streeter. “The cost is a loss of civil liberties for people of color, who are just as innocent as anyone else.”

The Chronicle’s computer analysis of CHP traffic stops made between July 1999 and July 2000 found that:

— Men were six times more likely to be searched than women. Once pulled over, white men stood a 1-in-61 chance of being searched, black men stood a 1- in-37 chance and Hispanic men stood a 1-in-29 chance.

— Forty-year-old white men were the type of driver most often stopped on California highways, but 25-year-old Latino men were the type searched most often by the CHP, even though Latinos make up a smaller portion of the population.

— Blacks and Latinos were arrested 57 percent more often than whites. They were also nearly 1.35 times more likely to be searched and then let go with no arrest.

— Whites accounted for about 55 percent of both enforcement stops and citations given, while they make up about 51 percent of the state’s adult population. But the ACLU and other experts argue that it is not valid to compare the races of those stopped to the state’s population, because minorities may be less likely than whites to own and drive cars.

— Asians were the least likely of all groups to have any contact with the CHP, accounting for 5 percent of traffic stops and citations. Asians were also far less likely to be searched than any other racial group.

Johnson of the UC Davis law school said the fact that Asians are searched less than other racial groups may show that they are stereotyped by police as much as any other group.

“I think that it fits the stereotypes that Asians are the model minority and that they are less likely to commit crimes,” he said. “Stereotyping is what racial profiling is all about.”


The disparity in search rates for Hispanics and whites held true in each of the CHP’s eight divisions, from the redwoods of Northern California to San Diego’s border zones.

The disparities in search rates were the highest in the CHP’s Bay Area division and the division that includes Sacramento and the central Sierra. In those divisions, Highway Patrol officers searched 1 in every 36 Hispanic drivers and 1 in every 38 blacks stopped. In comparison, only 1 in 98 white drivers was searched in the Bay Area and 1 in 101 whites in Sacramento.

The differences in search rates were even greater in some of the agency’s smaller units, such as those based in Santa Rosa, Oakland and San Jose, where officers were three times more likely to search Hispanics than whites. In Santa Rosa, blacks were also searched three times more often.

“Who gets searched is a strong indicator of who police believe is suspicious,” said David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Toledo and a national expert in racial profiling. “Any racial pattern in searching should raise eyebrows.”

Yet some criminal justice experts have argued that police are justified in searching minorities more often than whites, because minorities are more often arrested.

“CHP searches do not occur in a vacuum or randomly, but rather occur in the context of suspected criminal activity,” wrote Michael Ward, an economist hired by the CHP to analyze the agency’s computer data for the lawsuit, in a brief filed in court. “Criminal activity, as measured by arrests by all law enforcement agencies in the state of California, is disproportionately minority.”


Lawyers for the ACLU argue that this logic creates a “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“As long as you are only stopping and searching African Americans and Latinos, the only people you are going to be arresting and incarcerating are African Americans and Latinos,” said Michelle Alexander, the ACLU’s lead attorney in the case.

According to the suit, under the Operation Pipeline program, Highway Patrol officers are stopping motorists for minor offenses such as not having lights to illuminate their license plates or seat-belt violations, then investigating selected drivers as potential drug suspects.

To decide which cars to stop and which drivers to question and search, officers use a set of “indicators of drug trafficking” described in a 1998 CHP training manual filed as evidence in the court case. The listed indicators include: cars with bumper stickers saying things like “Say No to Drugs,” fast- food wrappers or tools within the vehicle and nervous drivers.

“These so-called indicators could apply to anybody,” said Streeter. “As a result, officers have unbounded discretion in choosing whom to stop and search.

“When you put officers in a situation where they are free to act on stereotypes, some really ugly things can happen. Whites are affected, too, but minorities bear the brunt of it.”


In a 1999 case cited in the suit, a Hispanic man and his white girlfriend, who were driving to pick up their infant son from his grandparents’ house in Fremont, were stopped on Interstate 5 for having a decorative crystal hanging from their rear view mirror.

Two CHP officers separated them and questioned them extensively about why they were together, finally asking their permission to search their car. The officer testified that one reason he believed that the two might be drug suspects was because they had baby clothing in the vehicle but no baby — a circumstance that CHP training courses teach is an indicator of possible drug activity.

In another case, Troy Taylor, a 22-year-old Sacramento resident, was held for two hours in a search three years ago prompted by another indicator in CHP training manuals: air freshener.

Taylor, an African American, said he was driving his mother’s SUV on Interstate 80, when CHP officers stopped him and wanted to know whether he had stolen the vehicle. They then searched the car and, after finding the air freshener, made him wait for two hours while they brought in a drug-sniffing dog, he said. Ultimately, he was released without being cited, but the stop damaged his trust in the law — not to mention his mother’s truck.

“They ripped my truck apart,” said his mother, Sharon Taylor. “They pulled out the speakers and tore it up, all for nothing. My son and I have no reason to trust the CHP. In fact, we feel they are out to get us, not to protect us.”

The ACLU attorneys say that the Highway Patrol’s management has been willing to open discussions about its search practices as a result of the lawsuit, which does not seek money from the agency, only reform.

“We’re having conversations with the CHP, and they’re listening,” said Streeter. “Our objective is to change the way the CHP goes about doing its drug investigations.”

Analyzing the records

The Chronicle analyzed California Highway Patrol records of 3.3 million roadside contacts between drivers and CHP officers, one of the largest databases ever studied, to determine whether law enforcement authorities engage in racial profiling.

The Chronicle sought the records under a California Public Records Act request in January. After the CHP declined to provide the records, the newspaper obtained the data from the American Civil Liberties Union, which sought and received the data as part of its class action lawsuit.

The Chronicle’s analysis of the 3.3 million roadside contacts initially eliminated traffic stops related to collisions and roadside assistance. It also eliminated many incomplete records in which the outcome of the stop was not indicated by the officer.

The paper then analyzed the remaining 1.7 million enforcement stops, including more than 33,000 searches by CHP officers.

It is difficult to compare the racial makeup of drivers stopped by the CHP with the state’s racial composition because no one knows how many members of each racial group actually drive on the state’s highway system.

So The Chronicle analysis focused on those drivers who were searched after being pulled over. Using that methodology, the paper was able to examine search rates for specific CHP units and for specific combinations of age, race and sex of the drivers searched.
What raises CHP suspicions?

–Here are some CHP “indicators” of possible drug trafficking:

–Bumper stickers like “God is my co-pilot,” “Say No to Drugs”

–Nervous body language

–Owner of vehicle not present

–“Mismatched occupants”

–Fast-food wrappers in vehicle

–Hand tools within vehicle

–Conflicting statements from vehicle occupants

— Drivers who respond with qualifiers (“Not that I know of. . . . “)

–“Felony Forest:” fabric softeners, soap, duct tape

–Windows don’t open fully

–Cell phones and pagers



–Large amounts of cash

–Large amounts of coins

Source: 1998 California Highway Patrol Training Manual