Motorists of Color: Know your rights!

Outside of racial profiling, consent searches are the root cause of the stark differences in traffic-stop arrests of racial groups.  “Motorists of Color” should know their rights in Houston. A police officer must have probable cause (PC) to pull over a driver for a safety violation. Many times, the violation involves a minor infraction such as: an expired registration sticker, broken taillight, rolling stop at stop sign, failure to signal.  These low-level “Citation-Eligible” offenses do not require an officer to arrest a motorist.  However, at the officer’s discretion, he or she may either give a ticket or citation instead of taking the violator to jail.  

A consent search is a procedural loophole that police officers use to negate bias and racial profiling.  The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure. Law enforcement agencies must first obtain a search warrant, based on PC, before a search may be performed.  Consent searches are searches that are made by law enforcement agents based on consent of the person whose property they wish to search. Consent searches are the most common form of warrantless searches. A search warrant or probable cause is not necessary if consent is given by someone with proper authority (Consent

From the US Marshals, slave patrols to the brutal legacy of the Texas Rangers’ system of convict leasing that was essentially slavery by another name and protests police brutality has electrified a larger discussion around the country about its history of race and law enforcement. Today, extensive data shows the disproportionate harm that police inflict on Black communities, from traffic stops and searches to drug arrests and the use of force. 

Howard Henderson, director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas  Southern University, writes that contemporary policing in the United States has worked to perpetuate systems of inequality and social domination that mirror the nation’s history of colonialism. Justice Can’t Wait is a Harris County-based coalition of 18 community organizations that focus on equity in the criminal justice system and to abolish current policing strategies to eliminate police violence against Black and Brown community members.  The coalition is composed of grassroots organizers, activists, and elected officials. On July 4, 2020, Independence Day, the group published “The Just Can’t Wait Report.”

It shows that Black Houstonians make up just 23% of the population, but 36% of police stops, 49% of citation-eligible arrests, and 63% of those shot by the Houston Police Department. Black people in Houston are suffering disproportionately at the hands of police. 

The Houston Police Department has a long-established history of abuse of power, excessive use of force, brutality, wrongful arrest and murders. According to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by the publication, Texas Observer, from 2006 – 2012 HPD received more than 500 hundred complaints of police misconduct (beatings, use of force, sexual harassment, wrongful arrest…), but only 4 cases were sustained by HPD Internal Affairs.

Officer involved shootings of suspects has risen since 2017. In 2017, there were 15 victims of HPD shootings: 2018 – 18, 2019 – 21, 2020 – 26, 2021 – 29 (COH Transparency HUB/HPD Dashboard, Independent Policing Oversight Board, 30 Jan 2022). The National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP) shared that HPD rec’d 588 “excessive use of force,” or brutality claims from the public and 118 complaints were filed by actual officers on other officers for police misconduct but only 2% of all the complaints filed were investigated by Internal Affairs – 10 out of 15 (10/15) of the cases sustained by the Internal Affairs (IA) office, the incidents were captured on video. Not one HPD officer, according to the NPMSRP, has been disciplined for shooting a person between 2006 – 2012 when numerous reports by media have stated that unarmed victims have been shot by HPD during this same time. According to US Census 2020, Black residents make up about a quarter of Houston’s population. However, 54% of all traffic stop arrests are African American – Black drivers are 4 times more likely to be arrested than white drivers, mostly due to “consent searches” which often officers had no probable cause to begin with (Texas Observer, 2012).  Know your rights. 

Written by: Joshua Sams