The Discretion to Search

Date01 May 2012
Published date01 May 2012
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
28(2) 184 –205
© 2012 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
DOI: 10.1177/1043986211425721
et al.Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
© 2012 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission: http://www.
1University of Texas–San Antonio, San Antonio, TX, USA
2Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA
3University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Rob Tillyer, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Texas–San Antonio, 501 W. Cesar E. Chavez Blvd.
San Antonio, TX 78207-4415, USA
The Discretion to Search:
A Multilevel Examination
of Driver Demographics
and Officer Characteristics
Rob Tillyer1, Charles F. Klahm IV2,
and Robin S. Engel3
Understanding police decision making has been a priority for policing scholars since
the middle part of the 20th century. Recent emphasis has focused on examining the
decision to search drivers and vehicles during pedestrian and traffic stops. The current
study contributes to this body of literature by testing a series of hypotheses based on
Skolnick’s notion of “symbolic assailants” and Smith and Alpert’s social conditioning
model. Using data gathered from a large, Midwestern municipal jurisdiction over an
8-month period during 2005 and 2006, we estimate a series of hierarchical models
to assess the relationship between discretionary searches and driver, vehicle, stop,
and officer characteristics. Results indicate that specific driver groups including young,
Black males are more likely to be searched for discretionary reasons. This relationship
is further conditioned by officer assignment. Policy implications and suggestions for
future research are also discussed.
police discretion, discretionar y searches, driver race/ethnicity, officer characteristics
Tillyer et al. 185
Concerns of racial/ethnic disparities in police encounters have been woven into the
fabric of research on officer decision making. Based on discretion studies and against
the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a body of research developed
that focused on explaining coercive outcomes of police–citizen interactions that could
be easily counted using official data sources (i.e., citations, arrests, use of force,
searches). This research examined, nearly exclusively, whether drivers’ characteristics
influenced police behavior (for review, see National Research Council, 2004). From
simple bivariate comparisons of police decisions and driver characteristics, this body
of research evolved into the use of multivariate statistical techniques in an effort to
isolate the effects of extralegal factors (e.g., drivers’ race/ethnicity, age, gender,
demeanor, etc.) on police decision making, after controlling for legal factors. After 5
decades of research examining police behavior, studies have demonstrated some
racial, ethnic, and gender characteristics that may, on occasion, influence officers to
take coercive actions against drivers, but the explanatory power of these extra-legal
factors is small compared with the influences of legal and other relevant factors
(National Research Council, 2004).
Most recently, officer decisions to search drivers and vehicles during pedestrian and
traffic stops have generated substantial research interest. This body of research generally
suggests that minority drivers are more likely to be searched compared with White driv-
ers (Engel & Johnson, 2006); however, there are several theoretical and methodological
limitations of this research that suggest a more detailed examination of officers’ decision
to search is required. First, many of the available studies do not separately consider man-
datory and discretionary searches. Mandatory searches are dictated by organizational
policy and do not allow an examination of the core issue—officer discretion. As a result,
analyses of all searches may reveal more about organizational responses toward driver
behavior than about officer decision making. Second, statistical analyses of searches
have potentially suffered from model misspecification. Little attention has been given to
examining specific groups of drivers, such as young, Black males and their experiences
with search activity. Analyses of other poststop outcomes (i.e., warnings and citations)
indicate that this specification is important to fully understand minority experiences dur-
ing traffic stops (Tillyer & Engel, forthcoming). Other variables not considered include
vehicle characteristics and driver demeanor, which have been linked with other poststop
outcomes, such as arrest (Engel, Klahm, & Tillyer, 2010). Third, examinations of officer
search behavior have been predominately executed using pooled variance models
(Alpert, Dunham, & Smith, 2007; Lundman, 2004; Moon & Corley, 2007). However,
this approach does not address the nested nature of traffic stop data that requires the use
of hierarchical models to disentangle encounter-level effects from officer or neighbor-
hood factors and has important implications for understanding the relationship between
officer characteristics and discretionary searches. Finally, consistent calls for the use of
theory have largely gone unheeded in past research on search and seizure activity (Engel,
Calnon, & Bernard, 2002; Tomaskovic-Devey, Mason, & Zingraff, 2004).

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