Are California Drug Agents Targeting Hispanics?

A northern California drug enforcement team has been accused of singling out Hispanics and other minorities by pulling them over on Interstate 5 based on ethnicity. The allegations could put Shasta County squarely into the increasingly heated national debate about racial profiling.

The Shasta County Public Defender’s Office alleges that deputies for years have specifically targeted Hispanic drivers suspected of smuggling drugs and cash along I-5. The allegations were made against deputies working as part of the North State Initiative California Multi-Jurisdictional Methamphetamine Enforcement Team (Cal-MMET) in court documents filed this week, reports Ryan Sabalow at the Redding Record Searchlight.

“As a result, many innocent Hispanics are being detained and having their constitutional rights violated, including the right to travel,” senior deputy public defender Mike Horan wrote in the motion. “There is little doubt that people are being targeted prior to being stopped based on their appearance.”

Officers denied the accusations, claiming drug agents don’t target suspects based on race. Sheriff’s Captain Jeff Foster, Cal-MMET leader until ast month, said the drug team’s statistics show that no particular ethnicity is being targeted.

“Those accusations are exactly that; they’re accusations, which are unsubstantiated,” Foster said.

But Horan said he’s tracked 75 arrests of suspected drug runners stopped on I-5 by Cal-MMET since 2007. Fifty-five of them — about 75 percent — were Hispanics, according to the public defender.

Shasta County’s population is only 8 percent Hispanic. Horan noted that when one looks at the total number of suspects arrested by the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, only about 6 percent are Hispanic in any given year. The population of California as a whole is about 36 percent Hispanic.

The figures, along with officers’ statements, make it clear that drug agents are racially profiling, according to Horan. He called their actions “discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

The northern California allegations arise in the middle of a heated national debate about racial profiling which was carried to a new level by Arizona’s passage last week of a harsh new law legislators claimed was to crack down on illegal immigration.

Alan Schlosser, head legal director of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, said Horan’s allegations of racial profiling were “very disturbing.”

The case raises serious questions about police tactics, agreed Kara Dansky, executive director of Stanford Criminal Justice Center.

“The fact that Hispanics make up just 8 percent of the county, yet are 75 percent of drug investigation reports seems like a red flag to me,” Dansky said.

Horan’s motion contends that drug agents patrol the freeway targeting Hispanic drivers and their passengers who match a “profile of a suspected drug runner,” usually a young Hispanic male.

A deputy then follows them until, sooner or later, they inevitably commit some minor traffic violation like an “unsafe lane change.” The deputy then pulls the driver over.

Once on the roadside, the agent who made the stop orders the driver out of the car, later claiming the suspect “acted suspiciously.” Within minutes backup deputies arrived with a drug-sniffing dog, and the vehicle is searched — usually after the driver, who may nor may not speak English, has consented to a search.

Even if the driver doesn’t agree to a search, the dog will be sent to sniff around the vehicle for drugs, the motion says.

The Federal Public Defender’s Office in Sacramento hired a private investigator who spent 11 days on Interstate 5 watching the drug agents at work.

The investigator watched the agents make 22 traffic stops; of those stops, 17 were of Hispanic drivers and 13 of those had their cars searched.

All of the other searches were of cars driven by blacks, or that had black passengers.

The only white driver who was pulled over wasn’t searched according to Horan’s motion.

Schlosser, the ACLU’s lawyer, said Horan’s allegations make him wonder why the California Highway Patrol pulled out of the Cal-MMET program in 2008 — after having joined less than a year earlier.

In the motion, H0ran quotes a letter by the chief of the CHP’s Northern Division, Chris Jenkins. Jenkins says in the letter that he’d decided it would be “in the best interest of the CHP to discontinue our active participation” in Cal-MMET.

The letter doesn’t say why.

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4 Responses to Are California Drug Agents Targeting Hispanics?

  1. markusgarvey May 1, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    it’s pretty much a catch-22 situation…if they ask you to consent to a search and you say no, they say that gives then probable cause..”you must have something to hide”…I’m half Hispanic and they have pulled this on me many a time..sometimes they don’t even ask and just do it anyway…it’s your word against theirs and you always lose…

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  3. Matt May 2, 2010 at 9:53 am

    If 70-80% or more of people smuggling drugs up from Mexico are Hispanic, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the majority of people arrested for that violation would be Hispanic? That isn’t racial profiling, that’s just statistics 101.

    • ArizonaWild May 2, 2010 at 11:44 am

      Why don’t we boycott California?
      No fighting, no fighting…Sharika, Sharika..Ha!

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