Ten years’ worth of NC traffic stop data reveal racial disparities in searches

North Carolina law enforcement officers searched Black drivers and/or their vehicles almost twice as often as their white counterparts, and at a much higher rate than drivers of other races, according to a report released by the North Carolina Criminal Justice Analysis Center on Monday. The Center within the Governor’s Crime Commission is charged with compiling and analyzing criminal justice data.

Police searched Black drivers/vehicles 45 of every 1,000 stops, compared with 23 of 1,000 stops for white drivers/vehicles.  Law enforcement searched drivers/vehicles of other races 14 of 1,000 stops.

Traffic stop data for 2009-2019 show that while the rate of searches of Hispanic drivers/vehicles has declined, Black drivers’ search rate has remained high.

Despite a consistent drop of overall traffic stops statewide in the past 10 years, the number of searches performed during these stops increased: 38,000 in 2019, compared with  31,856 in 2016, the report stated. The largest number of stops occurred in 2010, with 44,462.

On average, 3% of traffic stops resulted in a search during the same time period.

Speeding, which accounted for 42% of the times a driver was pulled over, rarely resulted in searches (1% of the time). But an individual who was believed to be driving while impaired was much more likely to be stopped and frisked, according to the data.

However, illegally-possessed drugs, alcohol, money, weapons and other items were found more often, from just over 10% of the searches in 2009 to over 30% in 2019. The report identified no racial difference in contraband discovery rate.

The data also show a transition to fewer searches with consent. Twelve years ago, the most common search was a consent search, where passengers and drivers agreed to have their belongings inspected by law enforcement officers.

In 2019, the rate of consent searches, which used to account for half of all searches declined sharply to 22%, overtaken by probable cause searches, in which law enforcement officers suspected a committed crime and searched without consent. This category of searches dominates all types of searches at 63%, up from 17% in 2009 when it was the least common.

Only less than 0.1% (1,224) of the searches undertaken in 2019 encountered resistance. Law enforcement reported using force against the driver or a passenger 596 times.

The new report follows up on two previous issues examining the demographics of and reasons for traffic stops from 2009 to 2019.

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