LOS ANGELES – The Sheriff’s Department team that pulled over thousands of innocent Latino motorists on the 5 Freeway in search of drugs violated the constitutional rights of drivers, according to Los Angeles County Inspector General Max Huntsman, who questioned the reason for the unit’s existence.
In a damning verbal report to the department’s civilian oversight panel, Huntsman criticized Sheriff’ Department officials for inadequate supervision of the highway drug unit and for failing to take heed of several federal court rulings that found the deputies on the team violated the rights of motorists by detaining them longer than was reasonable, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Adding that “the initial premise of this drug enforcement team was flawed,” Huntsman said the department had no evidence the unit has had a measurable impact on the flow of drugs from Mexico, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“The system is inherently built to violate the constitutional rights of a vast number of people passing through the I-5 Freeway,” Huntsman said, according to The Times. “That’s a problem.”
Huntsman began his investigation of the team after a Times analysis last month found that 69 percent of drivers stopped by the deputies were Latino and that two-thirds of them had their vehicles searched — a rate far higher than motorists of other racial and ethnic groups. Cars belonging to all other drivers were searched less than half the time, according to the newspaper’s analysis of Sheriff’s Department stop data.
Deputies found drugs or other illegal items in the vehicles of Latino motorists at a rate not significantly higher than that of black or white drivers, The Times found. Some Latino drivers pulled over by the team say they believe they were the victims of racial profiling.
Huntsman said his staff recently conducted ride-alongs with the team’s deputies and saw no signs they were using race or other biased factors when deciding whom to stop or search.
But Huntsman, who is in the early stages of his investigation, said some facts had already become clear. Regardless of whether his upcoming review of traffic stops finds evidence of racial profiling, Huntsman noted that only a small fraction of the more than 9,000 people who were stopped by the team faced criminal charges, adding that some portion of those drivers were “subjected to unlawful detentions.”
“That’s the obvious and inevitable result of a process where you have deputies who simply stop people on a pretext and then try to develop probable cause” to search for drugs, he told members of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.
The highway team was launched in 2012 as a response to a spate of drug overdoses in the Santa Clarita area, department officials said. Similar units operate around the country as part of a federal program designed to use local and federal law enforcement agencies to combat drug trafficking. The team has made more than 1,000 arrests and seized 600 pounds of cocaine and more than a ton of methamphetamine since it was formed.
Some of Huntsman’s harshest criticisms were over the failure of Sheriff’s Department officials to take action after nearly a dozen of the highway team’s arrests came under scrutiny in federal court and were dismissed.
“When something is resulting in a third of your cases getting kicked, that should be a red flag, a siren blaring in your ears,” he said, according to The Times.