Racial Disparity in Narcotics Search Warrants

Author:Laurence A. Benner
Position:Professor of Law, California Western School of Law.

I. Introduction A. BackgroundB. MethodologyC. Summary of FindingsII. The San Diego Judicial District A. Types of Narcotics SoughtB. Racial Composition of Most Frequently Searched AreasC. Race of the Target of the SearchD. Cocaine WarrantsE. Methamphetamine Warrants F. Searching for AnswersII. Outlying Judicial Districts A. North County Judicial DistrictB. El Cajon Judicial DistrictC. South Bay... (see full summary)


    Laurence A. Benner, Professor of Law, California Western School of Law. A special debt of gratitude is owed to Charles T. Samarkos, who helped initiate the San Diego Search Warrant Project; to Dr. Nancy E. Johnson and Dr. Dennis Saccuzzo, for their invaluable assistance in research design and statistical analysis; to Associate Deans Janet Bowermaster, Barbara Cox, and Mark Weinstein for their support for this project; to Linda Weathers for indispensable research assistance and to my students, Allen D. Brown, Marc Gardner, Mark J.Corey, James M. Cullender, Tricia K. Lawson, Michael H. Lamphier, Adriana Rincon, Celine I. Samaneigo and Michelle Waters for their tireless energy and dedication.

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I Introduction

I would like to thank the members of the Journal for organizing this symposium on such an important and timely topic. It is only through shared knowledge and research that we will be able to develop the tools needed to begin the difficult task of understanding the impact of race upon our criminal justice system. As a small step toward that goal, I would like to share with you some of our data from an ongoing research project we have undertaken at California Western School of Law, known as the San Diego Search Warrant Project.1

A Background

The search warrant is an important weapon in the government's arsenal for investigating suspected criminal activity. It also symbolizes the government's power to invade the privacy of a citizen's home, disrupt her life, and seize her property. Not surprisingly, search warrants have been a subject of controversy since the earliest moments of our national history. American colonists, it will be recalled, protested against British writs of assistance, which authorized customs officers to search their homes and businesses without individualized justification.2 Indeed, according to John Adams, opposition to the hated writs of assistance was a catalyst that sparked the movement toward independence.3

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Their recent memory of unreasonable searches undoubtedly influenced the founders to place restrictions on the government's use of search warrants in the Bill of Rights.4 The most important restriction, of course, was the requirement that search warrants issue only upon a showing of probable cause.5

Our interest in studying search warrants initially arose because an increasing number of innocent citizens appeared to be victims of erroneous drug raids conducted pursuant to search warrants.6 Decisions by the United States Supreme Court in the 1980s relaxed the standard for obtaining search warrants7and created a "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule.8 These decisions gave rise to concerns that the "probable cause" standard might be eroded as a result of increased reliance by police upon sources of doubtful reliability and integrity, such as undisclosed "confidential informants" and anonymous tips.9Indeed, newspaper accounts of bogus tips and mistaken drug raids by police SWAT teams, which traumatized innocent families and even resulted in the deaths of innocent citizens, lent credence to the fear that personal privacy and security were becoming unintended casualties of the war on drugs.10 Therefore, Page 185 we initiated the San Diego Search Warrant Project to study search warrants issued in San Diego County.

B Methodology

San Diego County is divided into four judicial districts: San Diego, North County, El Cajon, and South Bay. We initially studied a random sample of warrants issued in 1998 in the San Diego Judicial District, which is the most urban district in the county.11 We then expanded the study to include a sample of warrants from the North County Judicial District,12 which includes coastal cities as well as inland suburban and rural areas. We also sampled 100% of available search warrants from the two remaining smaller judicial districts, El Cajon13 (suburban and rural area) and South Bay14 (suburban area). We then drew a random sample from these combined databases in order to study the county as a whole.15

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The building blocks for our study included the probable cause affidavit filed by the officer seeking the warrant, the judicially approved search warrant, and the "receipt and inventory," which listed the items seized during execution of the warrant. From these documents, we collected over seventy-five variables concerning how search warrants are processed and executed. The race of the individual targeted by the search was one of these variables. This information appeared in the description of the suspect given by the police officer in the probable cause affidavit and/or the search warrant, which frequently authorized the search of a specifically described person as well as the premises. We did not attempt to guess a suspect's race based upon their first or last name.

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Although we found that search warrants were sought in connection with a wide variety of crimes, as Table 1 indicates, narcotics search warrants represented the largest single category. The race of the target was also known in a substantial majority of the narcotics warrants issued in each district. We therefore concentrated upon this subset of data for the purposes of addressing the issues presented by this symposium.17

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C Summary of Findings

To briefly summarize, we found that members of the Black and Hispanic communities in San Diego County were significantly over-represented as targets of narcotics search warrants. By contrast, White residents were under- represented when compared to their percentage of the population and studies showing patterns of drug use and drug distribution activities. This disparity was present in only two of the four judicial districts in the county. However, these two districts comprised over two-thirds (68%) of the county's population. We also found that racial disparity appeared to be linked to the type of drug sought by the search warrant. Looking at narcotics warrants from all judicial districts combined, we found that warrants for cocaine overwhelmingly targeted Black and Hispanic suspects, while search warrants for marijuana more closely mirrored the percentage a racial group represented in the population. Warrants for methamphetamine, on the other hand, targeted very few Black suspects. However, we again found over-representation of Hispanic suspects with respect to this drug, despite local data indicating that methamphetamine was largely used and distributed by Whites. Paradoxically, while Whites were under- represented as targets, we found that searches of White suspects were more successful in recovering the targeted drug than were searches of either Black or Hispanic suspects. We also collected data regarding gender and found that while the majority of targets were male, the majority of all female targets were White women. Indeed with respect to warrants for methamphetamine, White women outnumbered White men as targets.

Section II below examines data from the San Diego Judicial District, which encompasses the city of San Diego and is the county's most populous judicial district. Section III discusses data relating to the three outlying suburban and rural judicial districts. Section IV presents a composite portrait of the entire county.

II The San Diego Judicial District

The boundaries of the San Diego Judicial District are roughly co-terminus with the city of San Diego, which in 1998 had a population of 1.2 million.18 A wide variety of federal, state, and local agencies sought warrants from this district. These agencies included the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a joint state/federal narcotics task force known as NTF, the San Diego County Sheriff, and several suburban police departments from adjoining cities. The vast majority (80%) of the search warrants in our sample, however, were sought by the San Diego Police Department. As Table 2 below reveals, less than a quarter of these search warrants were issued in connection with a violent crime, while half involved searches for narcotics.

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A Types of Narcotics Sought

As shown in Table 3 below, the narcotics most frequently searched for were rock cocaine (39%) and methamphetamine (35%). Only 6% of the warrants sought powder cocaine. Heroin (9%) and marijuana (7%) were also sought infrequently. Other drugs (4%) included LSD and prescription drugs.19


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B Racial Composition of Most Frequently Searched Areas

The overwhelming majority of search warrants (89%) were directed at private homes. Search warrants were also obtained to search packages, luggage, a storage facility, motel rooms, and a detached garage. In well over half of the cases the search warrant also authorized the search of a named or described person, if found on the premises.

Using the street address provided on the search warrant and the U.S. Postal Service Zip Code Directory, we were able to obtain the postal zip code for almost all warrants that targeted either a home or commercial building. The majority of these search warrants were for locations clustered in zip code areas in the southeast portion of the inner city. As seen below in Table 4, that area is comprised of predominantly low-income, non-White residents. Table 4 is based on demographic profiles for zip code areas...

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