Racially Motivated Traffic Stops and Searches

The topic of racially motivated traffic stops has been up for debate national wide as well as in Utah, with many claiming drivers who are not of Caucasian decent are overly scrutinized while suffering through more search and seizures than other drivers.

Minorities and traffic stops

According to the Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics regarding traffic stops that resulted in searches, “a lower percentage of white drivers stopped by police in 2011 were searched (2%) than black (6%) or Hispanic (7%).“ While 6-7% of minorities beings searched to 2% of whites may not seem like enough of a spike to be considered excessively abnormal, it begins to raise eyebrows when one takes into account the total population of each race. In the year prior to the traffic stop statistics shared by the OJP, the 2010 census stated that:

• 72% of the U.S. population identified as being white alone;
• 28% identified as being Black, Hispanic, or another minority race.

6-7% of a lesser population of Americans being searched by police versus 2% or a larger population should be cause for concern.

Unbalanced prison population

Since research has shown that those of color or ethnic backgrounds face more scrutiny during traffic stops than whites who are the predominate race, it isn’t a surprise to know that the prison population is unbalanced rationally as well. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit non-partisan group that organizes statistical information on incarceration rates nationwide, in Utah jails and prisons in 2010:

• there were seven times more Black inmates than Whites;
• over twice as many Hispanics to whites; and
• four times more American Indian/Alaska Natives to Whites.

These numbers are even more alarming considering Utah is predominately white (78.8% white non-Hispanic).

Racial profiling defense

If the amount of traffic stops resulting in searches and seizures was not ethnically discriminatory, there is a good chance the racial divide of those incarcerated in Utah would even out as well. For those who wish to discuss charges attained following a traffic stops and search that could have been racially driven, contact a criminal defense attorney who is impartial to racial differences.

West Valley City Police Department Sued for Racial Profiling

The West Valley City Police Department was sued in early December for racial profiling after questioning non-white high schoolers about gang ties and affiliations.

Being picked first isn’t always a good thing

Photo by: Michael Fleshman

Photo by: Michael Fleshman

Officers from the West Valley Police Department conducted a gang sweep at West High School back in December 2010, using racial profiling to select certain high schoolers and interrogate them about gang associations. The reason for the questioning was not because they were suspects in a crime but merely to have their information on record for possible future reference. This fact alone was disturbing to the parents of the teens, until the heartbreaking realization set in when they realized that only the kids of color or minorities were the ones interrogated.

Focusing on minorities

According to the United States Census Bureau, Utah as a whole has a high percentage of white or Caucasian residents. Over 91% of Utahans are white compared to over 77% annually. West Valley City’s white majority is lower but still rules at around 65%. With 65% or nearly two-thirds of the population of West Valley City being white, the racial profiling that took place at West High appeared to be deliberate. If the questioning had been random, the odds of only questioning the kids of color or minorities would have been unlikely.

Gang database

Not only were the targeted kids wanted for questioning, their information along with a picture similar to a mug shot were taken and recorded into the national gang database. Regardless of whether or not these kids choose a better life than their “affiliations”, their information and photo available to police will forever remain tied to gangs. A few years after this unfortunate incident at the high school, the West Valley City Police Department settled a $50,000 lawsuit brought upon them by three of the racial profiling victims who were supported by their parents and the ACLU of Utah. Although the amount is welcomed by the three former students, their trust in law enforcement following their experience may be jaded indefinitely.

Racial profiling

Unlike criminal profiling in which police use behavior and other like information to predict criminal activity, racial profiling can be based on nothing more than the color of one’s skin. The National Institute of Justice states: “Racial profiling by law enforcement is commonly defined as a practice that targets people for suspicion of crime based on their race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. Creating a profile about the kinds of people who commit certain types of crimes may lead officers to generalize about a particular group and act according to the generalization rather than specific behavior.” All citizens have the right to be treated equally by police officers unless there is a reason to suspect that a crime has been or is about to be committed. Being a young African-American male in an all-white community or a dark-skinned woman boarding a plane wearing a hijab should not be a reason for law enforcement to make presumptions of hostile intent.

“Driving while black or brown”

While there are cases of racial profiling that are obvious issues being how no crime was committed, there are times racial profiling is hidden behind a legitimate crime or infraction. According to the ACLU: “On our nation’s highways today, police ostensibly looking for drug criminals routinely stop drivers based on the color of their skin. This practice is so common that the minority community has given it the derisive term, “driving while black or brown” – a play on the real offense of “driving while intoxicated.” Although these drivers may be stopped for valid reasons such as going five miles over the speed limit or a broken taillight, many of them believe they were only stopped mainly due to the color of their skin. Anyone facing charges in which they believe racial profiling played a role are encouraged to speak with a criminal defense attorney and the local ACLU regarding their constitutional rights.