Driver race and discretionary searches during traffic stops

 Paper examines some inconsistent findings from previous research

Past research examining if driver race is associated with discretionary searches during traffic stops has produced mixed findings as some data indicates higher numbers of searches for African Americans drivers compared to white drivers, and vice-versa. The 2013 Best Paper from Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice (Routledge), the Official Journal of the Women & Minorities Section of the ACJS, attempts to confirm if the samples of previous research created differences.

“We and noticed that there was variation in the methodology [of previous research]. Some researchers were using a broader sample, every driver that was stopped, and then seeing whether disparities were present in discretionary searches. Other researchers were using a much more restricted sample, searched drivers. These researchers were taking this sample of all searched drivers, which includes both discretionary and nondiscretionary searches such as being taken into custody, and examining whether there were any disparities in discretionary searches,” said Dr. Steven J. Briggs, one of the co-authors.  

Using previous data compiled by the Minneapolis Police Department, the study quantitatively examined 45,628 traffic stops to see whether varying sample selection (all stops versus stops with searches) yielded the same pattern. Some of the data collected included the following: the reason and location of the traffic stop; demographic characteristics of the driver; whether the driver, vehicle, and/or passenger was searched; the reason for any searches; whether any contraband was discovered and the nature of discovered contraband; as well as the disposition of the traffic stop. When officers indicated that a search was conducted in the course of a traffic stop, they were asked to select a reason for the search, including: consent to search form, driver gave verbal permission, officer safety, incident to arrest, and contraband observed. Officers also had to select one of the following reasons for initiating each stop: driving violation, dispatched, equipment violation, registration violation, or other.

The study found consistent results. “The current study confirmed the pattern identified in the published literature: An analysis using the stopped population produced findings showing that African American drivers had a higher likelihood of a discretionary search, whereas an analysis using the searched population produced results showing that white drivers had a higher likelihood of a discretionary search,” concluded the researchers. The researchers have acknowledged that further research will be necessary to answer why these disparities are present.  Other interesting considerations were also found. Male drivers had a higher likelihood of a discretionary search than female drivers. Younger drivers (aged 15-29) had a higher chance of a discretionary search than older drivers.  Traffic stops that took place between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. had a lower likelihood of a discretionary search than traffic stops that occurred between midnight and 4 a.m. In contrast, traffic stops that were initiated for equipment or registration violations did not have a statistically significant higher likelihood of a discretionary search compared to traffic stops for moving violations.


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