A recent analysis of over 100,000 traffic stops in Connecticut in 2011, performed by the Hartford Courant’s Matthew Kauffman, found that minorities were ticketed far more often than white drivers when stopped for the same offense:
The disparity was most striking among Hispanic motorists, who were more likely than both whites and blacks to be ticketed in each of 13 categories of violations — such as speeding, cellphone violations, running stop signs and improper license-plate display — for which there were at least 1,000 stops. Black drivers fared worse than whites in 10 of the 13 categories.
Mr. Kauffman reported that blacks and Hispanics fared especially poorly when stopped for equipment-related violations. Among nearly 4,000 stops related to the display or use of license plates, 13 percent of white motorists left with a citation, compared with 27 percent of black drivers and 36 percent of Hispanics. In more than 2,600 stops involving improper taillights, black motorists were twice as likely, and Hispanics nearly four times as likely, to be ticketed than white drivers.
The traffic reports do not include such information as the circumstances of the stop, the behavior and driving history of the motorist or the race of the officer, so by themselves don’t explicitly prove the widespread existence of racial profiling or racist policing. But the trend they disclose certainly is troubling.
This trend is even more troubling when coupled with the fact that the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment has become much less protective of individuals’ rights over time.
The Court’s first major decision on the constitutionality of pretextual traffic stops was in the 1996 court case Whren v. U.S. The Justices were presented with the question of whether or not a vehicle search is constitutional if it wouldn’t have taken place unless the police had sought an unrelated excuse for the search. The Court decided that any traffic violation by a driver was a sufficient reason for a stop, regardless of the officer’s true intentions or motivations. With traffic laws as confusing as they are, this decision allows police to stop almost any driver and can subject him or her to a plain-view search at the whim of the police officer.
Later Court decisions only reinforced the justices’ initial ruling:
- Ohio v. Robinette — the Court found that an officer is not obligated to tell a driver that he or she can refuse an officer’s request for a search.
- Maryland v. Wilson – granted police the power to order passengers out of stopped cars, regardless of whether or not there is reason to think they are dangerous.
- Wyoming v. Houghton – after the driver of a stopped vehicle is arrested, the police can search the closed purse of a passenger even without any probable cause.
- Thornton v. United States – the police may search a parked vehicle for drugs, guns, or other evidence of a crime while arresting the vehicle’s driver or passengers.
Unfortunately, this is just a sampling, there are many other court cases that have further chipped away at drivers’ Fourth Amendment protections.
On the topic of racial profiling, the Courant’s editorial sums up the current state of things well, “Everyone has dropped the ball on stopping racial profiling; has tried to wish the problem away. Not only has it not gone away, we now see another dimension to it. It’s not just who police stop, it’s what then happens to them afterward. […] Impartial law enforcement is a goal that needs constant attention.”