June 7, 2011 4:12 pm

ACLU complaint: DOJ should investigate racial bias in Illinois State Police consent searches

CHICAGO – Following years of inaction by state governmental officials, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today filed an administrative complaint and asked the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation into the substantial racial disparate impact cause by consent searches conducted by Illinois State Police troopers 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 occurs when a police officer does not have legally sufficient cause to require a search, yet nevertheless asks for permission to conduct a search.

Data demonstrates that almost all motorists – between 94% and 99% — consent to a search when asked by an ISP trooper, suggesting that the coercive nature of the encounter renders the “consent” not truly voluntary.

In a complaint to the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division and the Chief of the Special Litigation Section, the American Civil Liberties Union 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.

“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.”

The ACLU’s request notes that data collected under the Illinois Traffic Stop Statistical Act of 2003 (originally championed by State Senator Barack Obama) shows persistent and dramatic racial disparate impact against Hispanic and African American motorists. That data shows that Hispanic and African American motorists are far more likely than white motorists to be subjected to consent searches by ISP troopers. Hispanic motorists were 2.7 to 4.0 times more likely to be consent searches (in the years between 2004 and 2009), and African Americans motorists were 1.8 to 3.2 times more likely. Remarkably, white motorists who consent to searches by ISP troopers are far more likely to have contraband than compared to Hispanic and African American motorists.

“The numbers are stark – motorists of color are more likely to be subjected to a humiliating search and less likely to have contraband,” added Grossman. “The solution is clear – ban all consent searches by the ISP.”

Illinois’ officials have been aware of this problem for some time. In July 2005, after the first year of Traffic Stop Act data was reported, the former Illinois Governor called the disparity in consent searches of minority drivers to be the “study’s most troubling finding.” No action was taken to correct the problem. In July 2006, the ISP commissioned a study to look at the disparity. That study revealed that minority drivers were more than twice as likely as white motorists to be searched. In July of 2008 and July of 2009, the ACLU and other civil rights groups wrote to the Governor (both Blagojevich and Quinn) urging them to use their executive authority to end consent searches to the ISP. No remedial action was taken.

“Minority drivers across the State of Illinois continue to be subjected to these humiliating searches on our highways and expressways,” added Grossman. “It is time to end this practice.”
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Download a copy of the complaint.
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