Texas Cops Engage In Millions Of Roadside Searches, Find Nothing Illegal 80 Percent Of The Time

from the you-can-only-be-this-inefficient-by-spending-other-people's-money dept

Pretextual stops are bread-and-butter for cops. There's plenty of real crime out there waiting to be solved, but that requires time and attention that law enforcement apparently just doesn't have. So, a lot of what passes for "law enforcement" is just officers rolling the dice on vehicle searches, hoping to find something illegal (or at least some cash) to justify the roadside harassment.

Here are the depressing facts about the crime solving abilities of law enforcement:

In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, just 45.5% of all violent crime cases reported to police in America were "cleared," typically meaning a suspect was arrested, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

When it came to property crimes, the clearance rate was much lower, at just 17.6%.

While these crimes go (mostly) unsolved, police officers are operating with nearly the same success rates on the nation's streets and highways. There are plenty of traffic stops. But there's actually very little "crime solving" happening. The Houston Chronicle has looked into local law enforcement activity and found almost nothing that justifies pretextual stops or the extended amount of time that elapses between when the lights go on and citizens are free to go.

Law enforcement has a fondness for junk science. Training seminars and Dunning-Kreuger have convinced cops they can do something almost no person can: determine guilt just by talking to people. So far, nothing has talked officers out of this self-delusion. Roadside stops are numerous. Evidence of criminal activity is almost nonexistent.

Statistically, police are terrible at determining which motorists are worthy of being detained and searched. Most turn up nothing. Often relying on signs of a driver’s deception that research has long debunked, officers distinguish liars from truth-tellers at a rate barely above chance, studies show.

Since so few of these pretextual stops result in criminal charges, these Constitutional violations are rarely challenged. The cost of pursuing a lawsuit is prohibitive, as is the qualified immunity doctrine which relies on precedent very few courts are in any hurry to set. As long as a cop violates rights in a way courts haven't already addressed, the citizen gets nothing from the lawsuit but a hole in their wallet and a handful of violated rights.

This lack of deterrent has made harassing motorists a pretty safe bet for officers who think pretty much anything a motorist does in the presence of law enforcement is suspicious. But citizens are getting zero bang for their taxpaying buck when officers focus on drivers rather than actual criminal activity.

Texas police performed just under a million searches during traffic stops last year, according to figures reported to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. About one in five resulted in contraband being found. The agency’s numbers aren’t perfect; it combines several types of searches, and some police departments appear to have entered data incorrectly; TCOLE has re-written its form for more precise reporting in the future.

In other words, cops' instincts are wrong at least 80% of the time. And even when they do get a "hit" (i.e., discovering contraband), there's still a chance whatever's been found won't be enough to justify filing criminal charges.

Citizens have a problem with this. Not that they can do much about it. Lawsuits are often futile and law enforcement officials support this harassment with unchallenged and unverified claims about "crime prevention," which seems to talk most local legislators out of engaging in much oversight.

Of course, the entity that most firmly believes millions of stops are acceptable isn't even a law enforcement agency. It's the local police union, represented by VP Douglas Griffith. Griffith cites that one time officers stopped Timothy McVeigh as justification for years of harassment that has yet to produce another terrorist arrest from a traffic stop. Going further, Griffith says this is the public's cross to bear if it would like to continue living in a society.

Tolerating searches that turn up nothing is a reasonable public price for the law enforcement benefit, Griffith said: “To me, if I know I didn’t do anything wrong, it’s nothing more than a minor annoyance.”

That's not how rights work, you fuckmook. Whether or not someone did something wrong is beside the point. The cops can't engage in suspicionless searches. The public's rights aren't secondary to law enforcement wants or needs. And citizens should be doubly upset if they have done nothing wrong.

Fortunately, not everyone is so stupid and dismissive of other people's rights. Here's one law enforcement official who actually recognizes the permanent damage excessive stops and searches can do to community relations.

“I think the payoff is not worth it,” said Major Mike Lee, who oversees the Harris County Sheriff’s Office’s Patrol Bureau. Say “we stop a thousand cars a day. And we make a great arrest that day and we put it all over social media. But in the meantime, you pissed off 999 citizens who may have all been pro-law enforcement before you stop them, and now have such a bad taste in their mouth after that stop."

In most cases, the only thing "justifying" a stop is a melange of faulty assumptions and contradictory logic. With enough creativity, any stop will look clean on the paperwork.

Officers have cited a driver’s pulsing veins, “limbic movements” (twitching), shifty eyes and windows that don’t roll down (suggesting drugs hidden in the door panels) as signs of potential criminal activity. Based on their “training and experience,” they’ve flagged as suspicious cars smelling too much like air freshener, vehicles that are too clean or too messy, erratic driving and driving that appears too cautious.

The science is against cops and their supposedly preternatural ability to suss out liars and cons.

“There are no nonverbal and verbal cues uniquely related to deceit,” a 2011 review of deception research concluded.

Their own failure rate should have clued them in years ago.

A 2005 study of Texas police found officers performed barely above random chance in being able to discern a person telling the truth from a liar.

And yet they persist. It takes several court decisions to deter this activity. And the lack of deterrence shows there haven't been enough court decisions yet. It's convenient for cops to treat everyone as a criminal suspect, even when all they've done is crossed a fog line. Precedent gives them the leeway to turn minor violations into major headaches for motorists. But 80% of the time, all the public gets from this use of their tax dollars is harassed motorists.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, police, pretextual stops, roadside searches, texas

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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Reese Seeved O'Verandout, 5 Nov 2020 @ 7:35pm

    Techdirt and other "libertarians" expect everyone else to obey

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    There's nothing wrong with "authoritarianism" when it in fact promotes the common good. You drug addicts / leftists / anarchists are not for the common good, shown by that never mention it.

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