Troopers must have probable cause
California Highway Patrol officers can no longer search a car without probable cause, even if the driver allows it.
CHP Commissioner D.O. “Spike” Helmick earlier this month banned all 6,750 CHP officers from conducting consent searches.
Helmick said the ban won’t change law enforcement of highways through and around South Lake Tahoe though.
“(Nearly 100) percent of searches are going to go right on and nothing is going to change,” he said. “A good policeman uses probable cause for searches.”
Helmick denied the indefinite hold on searches is related to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. He said the moratorium is meant to give other CHP officials time to evaluate if consent searches are useful.
The ACLU has a lawsuit pending against the CHP that claims officers are performing traffic stops that target more minorities than whites.
In 1999, CHP conducted 3 million traffic stops and 1,370 consent searches.
Helmick said the CHP has been around since 1921, but consent searches have only been around about 11 years.
“This is not a particularly used tool. It’s a relatively new phenomenon,” he said. “We want to make sure what’s happening is productive. The courts have held consent searches as constitutional. The ACLU doesn’t like that. Courts have said if an officer has suspicion he has the right to ask for a consent search. Each and every stop is different. The (ACLU) would like a set criteria, the court has said that doesn’t have to be done.”
Helmick said the ban is for an indefinite time because he doesn’t know how long it will take to complete an evaluation.
“The two are apples and oranges,” Helmick said about comparing probable cause and consent searches. “You’re asking me to reach a conclusion. It may come back they have one hell of an impact. It could be six months, it could be indefinite.”
New Jersey State Police, after facing heated criticism over the targeting of minority motorists during consent searches, recently reported a decrease in the number of searches conducted in the first two months of the year.
Trooper Ed Lennon, president of the troopers’ union, said the decline is a result of troopers’ fears.
”What I am hearing is the troopers don’t want to put their necks on the line right now,” Lennon told The New York Times.
-AP Contributed to this story
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