The team of Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies cruises the 5 Freeway, stopping motorists on the Grapevine in search of cars carrying drugs.
They’ve worked the mountain pass in Southern California since 2012 and boast a large haul: more than a ton of methamphetamine, 2 tons of marijuana, 600 pounds of cocaine, millions of dollars in suspected drug money and more than 1,000 arrests.
But behind those impressive numbers are some troubling ones.
More than two-thirds of the drivers pulled over by the Domestic Highway Enforcement Team were Latino, according to a Times analysis of Sheriff’s Department data. And sheriff’s deputies searched the vehicles of more than 3,500 drivers who turned out to have no drugs or other illegal items, the analysis found. The overwhelming majority of those were Latino.
Several of the team’s big drug busts have been dismissed in federal court as the credibility of some deputies came under fire and judges ruled that deputies violated the rights of motorists by conducting unconstitutional searches.
The Times analyzed data from every traffic stop recorded by the team from 2012 through the end of last year — more than 9,000 stops in all — and reviewed records from hundreds of court cases. Among its findings:
Latino drivers accounted for 69% of the deputies’ stops. Officers from the California Highway Patrol, mainly policing traffic violations on the same section of freeway, pulled over nearly 378,000 motorists during the same period; 40% of them were Latino.
Two-thirds of Latinos who were pulled over by the Sheriff’s Department team had their vehicles searched, while cars belonging to all other drivers were searched less than half the time.
Three-quarters of the team’s searches came after deputies asked motorists for consent rather than having evidence of criminal behavior. Several legal scholars said such a high rate of requests for consent is concerning because people typically feel pressured to allow a search or are unaware they can refuse.
Though Latinos were much more likely to be searched, deputies found drugs or other illegal items in their vehicles at a rate that was not significantly higher than that of black or white drivers.
How a team of L.A. County sheriff’s deputies stops Latino drivers at a disproportionate rate
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said that racial profiling “plays no role” in the deputies’ work and that they base their stops only on a person’s driving and other impartial factors.
“The [team] has removed tens of millions of dollars’ worth of illegal narcotics from circulation, including heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl,” the department said in a statement responding to The Times’ analysis. “A recent arrest involved the seizure of approximately 10,000 Oxycodone tablets, a small dent in the opioid addiction crisis that has enveloped our nation.”
A Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman declined interview requests to discuss The Times’ specific findings. The department would not say whether it has conducted its own analysis of the deputies’ stops.
Sheriff’s Department officials said the team was launched as a response to a spate of drug overdoses in the Santa Clarita area. 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.
In December, Sheriff Jim McDonnell heaped praise on the team, ticking off its accomplishments in a lengthy statement. “The importance of this mission cannot be overstated,” the sheriff said.
But several legal and law enforcement experts said the department’s own records strongly suggest the deputies are violating the civil rights of Latinos by racially profiling, whether intentionally or not.
“When they say, ‘We’re getting all these drugs out of here,’ they are not taking into account the cost,” said David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies racial profiling by police. “They are sacrificing their own legitimacy in the community as a whole and the Latino community in particular.”
Kimberly Fuentes, research director for the California League of United Latin American Citizens, described The Times’ findings as “extremely disturbing and troubling” and said the advocacy organization would demand a meeting with Sheriff’s Department officials.
“These findings risk tarnishing any trust between the Sheriff’s Department and the Latino community,” Fuentes said.
‘Looking for a defeated expression’
On a recent morning, Deputy John Leitelt wound his way up the Grapevine.
The shift had been uneventful. Leitelt had stopped several vehicles, but he quickly cut the drivers loose after exchanging a few words and seeing nothing suspicious.
He had spent an extra few minutes with a Latina motorist he stopped for an expired registration. When Leitelt learned she was traveling to Fresno to visit a friend, he asked where she would be staying. When she said she hadn’t yet made a reservation, he would say afterward, he was suspicious.
He asked whether he could squeeze a large stuffed toy dog sitting in the passenger seat. She agreed, and Leitelt then asked whether he could look in the trunk. Inside was a small suitcase, and Leitelt decided she was telling the truth. He thanked the woman and let her go.
Later, Leitelt explained that he carefully studies a motorist’s reaction when he asks for permission to search their car. “I’m looking for a defeated expression,” he said.
Leitelt, a deputy for 18 years, joined the highway team at its start. He and the team’s three other deputies — all white men — typically work alone in marked SUVs. Their terrain spans the roughly 40 miles of freeway from the border with Kern County to just south of Santa Clarita.
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