June 8, 2001 (TRENTON, N.J.) - Many African-Americans have unhappy memories of standing on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike while state troopers go through their cars and usually finding nothing illegal.
These consent searches have become one of the state's most controversial law enforcement tools. A legislative committee, in a preliminary report released last week called for their abolition on all state highways with a 65 mph speed limit. But that call is not being picked up by acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco or by the three leading candidates in the November gubernatorial election.
Even Attorney General John Farmer, who suggested a ban when he testified at a hearing in April on racial profiling, has recently reversed himself. His testimony was used in the committee report.
"Attorney General Farmer acknowledged that consent searches yield little in the way of contraband, thus essentially supporting the argument that they are of little utility, but present significant risks," the report said.
Nationally, and in New Jersey, about 85 percent of the searches come up empty. Farmer told the Judiciary Committee that recent statistics show that 53 percent of the searches were of black drivers and 25 percent of Hispanics, with drugs, guns or other illegal items found in a minority of those searches. Troopers found contraband in the vehicles of half of the white drivers who were searched. He cited a recent study of stops and searches by troopers assigned to the Moorestown barracks and patrolling the southern part of the turnpike, a section of highway long targeted in an effort to stop drugs from moving up the East Coast.
The committee report urges DiFrancesco to sign an executive order on consent searches that would also require stricter monitoring of highway stops. But the acting governor argues that state police procedures can be reformed without a ban.
George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University, agrees. Kelling gained a national reputation with a call for city police to take on quality of life crimes, arguing that broken windows and other seemingly minor problems contribute to a tolerance for lawlessness.
Kelling says that consent searches of vehicles and similar tactics like stopping and frisking pedestrians for guns in urban areas are both "powerful tools" and needed as a deterrent in a country like the United States where weapons have proliferated.
"People understand that there is a greater risk in having a gun," he said.
He also acknowledges that searches without probable cause can be abused, especially when they are used as a substitute for good investigative techniques in trying to solve specific crimes. But Kelling believes that police officers can be trained to use their discretionary power in a race-neutral manner.
New Jersey officials hope that keeping tabs on traffic stops will change officers' behavior. A consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department requires reports on all traffic stops on the turnpike with even more detail required in all cases in which drivers or their vehicles are searched.