LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in remarks reported Tuesday that he will revive a drug team that was sharply criticized for disproportionately stopping Latino drivers on the 5 Freeway, but he said the unit would follow strict constitutional guidelines to prevent racial profiling.
The Domestic Highway Enforcement team was suspended in November after county Inspector General Max Huntsman said a preliminary investigation by his office found the unit was “inherently built to violate the constitutional rights of a vast number of people passing through the I-5 Freeway.”
Villanueva told the Los Angeles Times Tuesday that a new team of specialized narcotics officers is expected to begin drug enforcement operations on the stretch of the interstate north of Santa Clarita later this year. He said the former team fell short of department standards in how they treated Latino drivers.
“Maybe they started with the best of intentions, but over time they got … a profile that had too much of a component that was constitutionally impermissible,* Villanueva said. “So we need to restart and go back to what’s allowable.”
Villanueva said the revamped team would be given a different name and would consist of some deputies who are native Spanish speakers. The sheriff did not specify how large the unit would be or what reforms would be made before operations resume. He said the unit would have to balance its mission to disrupt the flow of drugs from Mexico with its legal duty not to violate the constitutional rights of drivers.
“If the criminal profile is that Mexican cartels are using native Mexican immigrants to transport drugs through the I-5 corridor, at some point when you start zeroing on who the right people are, it’s going to end up being a lot of Spanish-speaking people,” he told The Times. “But we have to separate the wheat from the chaff. And we have to use the same standard for everybody.”
The unit’s approach first came under scrutiny in October when a Times investigation detailed how the team had pulled over and searched the vehicles of more than 3,500 drivers who turned out to have no drugs or other illegal items. The overwhelming majority of those were Latino.
The Times‘ analysis of Sheriff’s Department data found that 69% of drivers stopped by the team were Latino and that two-thirds of them had their vehicles searched — a rate higher than motorists of other racial and ethnic groups. Cars belonging to all other drivers were searched less than half the time.
By contrast, Latinos made up 43% of motorists who were issued citations by the California Highway Patrol on the same stretch of freeway during a six-month period last year, according to an inspector general’s office report released weeks ago.
The report found that the team’s work “had a constitutionally troubling impact on Latino drivers” and nearly a third of federal criminal filings based on the unit’s arrests, 11 of 36, were dismissed by the courts or by prosecutors.
The inspector general’s office said there were problems with oversight as soon as the unit was created in 2012 and the Sheriff’s Department should have been aware. As early as 2014, the report said, the U.S. attorney’s office told sheriff’s officials of credibility problems regarding a deputy assigned to this team; yet no study was done to determine whether there were systemic issues behind the team’s practices.
The unit — made up of a sergeant, four deputies, a part-time narcotics detective and a drug-sniffing dog — focused on the Grapevine section of Interstate 5, between the northern border of L.A. County and Santa Clarita.
The team made more than 1,000 arrests and seized 600 pounds of cocaine and more than a ton of methamphetamine, among other drugs, since it was formed. But Huntsman said that, without knowing the total supply that is moving through the 5 Freeway corridor, it’s difficult to say how effective their efforts have been, The Times reported.