SPRINGFIELD -- The Illinois State Police on Tuesday denied any racial bias in deciding when to ask permission to search cars during traffic stops and defended the searches as an effective law-enforcement tool.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said state police ducked the basic question of why troopers are more likely to seek permission to search the cars of black and Hispanic drivers than of white drivers, even though searches of white drivers more often reveal contraband.
Gov. Pat Quinn has asked the state police director to review the issue, a Quinn spokesman said.
"The governor's office takes matters of this nature very seriously," spokesman Grant Klinzman said.
Black and Hispanic drivers were about three times more likely than whites to undergo a "consent search" in 2009, according to an ACLU analysis of the most recent data for state police traffic stops. In 2006, Hispanics were nearly four times more likely.
The ACLU wants the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and potentially bar the state police from using these searches, which are not based on any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The ACLU filed a complaint last week, but the state police did not release a detailed public response until Tuesday.
"Consent searches are a tool recognized and authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court," department spokesman Scott Compton said in a statement. "In 2009, ISP requested consent from 2 out of every 1,000 motorists stopped. This statistic demonstrates that troopers ... are not abusing the use of consent searches."
He said state police were less likely than other departments to seek permission to search minority drivers. Overall, 2 percent of minority drivers were asked to allow a search during traffic stops in 2009, but among stops by the state police the figure was only 0.4 percent, down from 1.35 percent in 2005.
Harvey Grossman, legal director for the ACLU of Illinois, said that decline raises questions the state police should have to answer.
"Why are they falling? Why were they high?" Grossman said. "That would suggest something was wrong before and they didn't need to be doing as many consent searches as they were."
If police have reasonable grounds to suspect a crime, they do not need a driver's permission to search a car. Consent searches are used when police have no reason to suspect a crime but still want to conduct a search for some reason. Drivers don't have to allow the search but they do about nine times out of 10.
In defending consent searches, the state police said they seized 2,069 firearms, over 14,472 pounds of illegal drugs, and arrested thousands of motorists for serious crimes in 2009. They did not, however, say how many of those successes were a result of consent searches.
The ACLU's figures show only 177 state police consent searches produced any contraband, and more than half of it came from white drivers. Mostly what troopers found was alcohol and drug paraphernalia. They found weapons only 14 times and more than 50 grams of drugs only eight times.
Compton and Quinn's office did not respond to questions about whether state troopers have any guidelines for when to seek a consent search or whether they receive any training.
Compton did say that in 2009 the state police adopted a policy of videotaping consent searches and recording audio, too, if the driver agrees. Troopers must file a report explaining why the search was requested. The videos and reports are then reviewed by supervisors.
Grossman said the state police haven't provided any information about those reviews and what they reveal about how officers decide to seek a consent search.
"I don't even know how you evaluate something that is based on a hunch," Grossman said.