Civil rights groups urge Gov. Blagojevich to end minority targeting consent searches

By Caryn Rousseau

CHICAGO – Civil rights groups on Thursday asked Gov. Rod Blagojevich to bar state police from conducting consent searches during traffic stops, citing four years of data that show minorities are searched more often than whites.

In 2007, minorities underwent consent searches – when police ask drivers for permission to look in their vehicles – at a rate 2 1/2 times that of white drivers, according to an analysis of data reported by police agencies throughout the state. Contraband, such as drugs or guns, was discovered almost twice as often among white drivers.

“You’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of black and Latino drivers being subjected to consent searches,” Harvey Grossman, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, part of an eight-member coalition of civil rights groups asking for a halt to such searches. “We’re hopeful the governor will get rid of them.”

The study analyzed 2.4 million traffic stops reported by 939 police agencies statewide.

Minority drivers were 10 percent more likely to be stopped on Illinois roads than white drivers, according to the 2007 data.

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Blagojevich said he recently became aware of the civil rights groups’ claims.

“I oppose any unjustified differential treatment of any group,” he said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the coalition to further our shared goals.”

A statement from the Illinois State Police said the agency consistently tells its cadets through training and its supervisors of its “no tolerance” stance against biased policing.

“Bias-based policing is unacceptable and will not be practiced or tolerated by the ISP,” agency Director Larry Trent said.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has collected the data from police agencies since Jan. 1, 2004 under a state law aimed at identifying racial bias in traffic stops. The state also created a Racial Profiling Prevention and Data Oversight Board, which is due to issue a recommendation on the data by Jan. 1, 2010.

Consent searches fell 17 percent overall in 2007, compared to 2006, but still were disproportionately conducted by race. Last year’s data found that high rates of motorists – 91 percent of whites and 90 percent of minorities – consent to police requests to search their vehicles. But Grossman said that’s because they feel coerced.

“People feel that they cannot refuse,” Grossman said.

Ann Johnson of Champaign, who is black, says police have never asked to search her car when she’s been pulled over, “but I’ve heard about it and I’ve seen it quite a bit.”

The 46-year-old college student believes police are more likely to pull over young black or Hispanic men and boys because they tend to decorate their vehicles in a way that draws attention.

“They make it look like they’re doing something (wrong),” though they may not be, she said.

Even so, Johnson said she would like to see consent searches stopped.

“I don’t care what color you are, that’s no right at all,” Johnson said.