Legalization Leads to Less Traffic Stops
Washington state has seen a sharp decline in the number of traffic stops resulting in searches by state police — a result of the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2012,
A team of Stanford University researchers with the Open Policing Project studied data for
more than 130 million state patrol stops in 31 states from 2011 to 2015, including 8,624,032 stops in Washington state, the largest collection of traffic stops to date. Digging through the numbers, they reached two major conclusions: after legalization, stops resulting in searches have gone down. This could potentially result in limiting the number of dangerous clashes between drivers and police, according to Stanford researchers.
But racial disparities still exist.
“After marijuana use was legalized, Colorado and Washington saw dramatic drops in search rates,” according to Stanford researchers. “That’s because many searches are drug-related. Take away marijuana as a crime and searches go down… In Washington and Colorado, far fewer people — both whites and minorities — are searched overall. However, the racial disparities in searches remain, and there is a persistent gap in the threshold for searching white and minority drivers.”
While the Stanford research showed substantial drops in the number of searches for all racial groups, glaring racial disparities were still apparent for black and Hispanic drivers.
“When we apply the threshold test to our traffic stop data, we find that police require less suspicion to search black and Hispanic drivers than whites,” according to the Stanford researchers. “This double standard is evidence of discrimination.”
The Marshall Project and Reveal, a weekly radio program from the Center for Investigative Reporting, partnered to review the stop-and-search data, finding a 34 percent decrease in the search rate for black drivers, while the search rate for white and Hispanic drivers decreased by about 25 percent.
Yet racial disparities were still apparent before and after legalization. The Marshall Project analysis of Washington State Patrol data showed that black drivers were still searched roughly twice as much as white drivers, and Hispanic drivers were searched about 1.7 times as much as white drivers.
The Stanford University researchers also found that black drivers are 20 percent more likely to receive a ticket than white drivers, and Hispanic drivers 30 percent more likely, across all of the 31 states that submitted data.
The Stanford researchers also break it down by county. For example, in only three of every 100 searches of Hispanic drivers in Walla Walla County did the police find contraband. Twelve of every 100 police searches of white drivers in the county turned up illegal drugs or weapons, the data shows.
“If searches of minorities turn up contraband at lower rates than searches of whites, the outcomes tests suggests officers are applying a double standard, searching minorities on the basis of less evidence,” according to Stanford researchers.
This is something that the ACLU has been trying to combat recently, advocating that law enforcement agencies need to have “objective facts” that amount to reasonable suspicion before searching a vehicle.
A caveat to the data collected by the Open Policing Project is that it only includes stops by state patrol agencies and not local law enforcement. This could potentially skew the findings, and provide an incomplete picture of what’s actually happening in Washington.
With state police primarily working on interstate highways, it’s possible that the legalization of marijuana has not had the same impact on the number of traffic stops in urban areas. For example, traffic stops made by city police in Seattle or Spokane are not included in the data.
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