Racial Profiling in California Law Enforcement
California Civil Rights Lawyers

If you live in South Central or East Los Angeles, you don't need us to tell you about cops and racial profiling.  Chances are you or someone you know may have felt targeted by law enforcement just because of skin color.

Racial profiling is wrong and it violates both the United States Constitution and California law.

Our California Civil Rights Lawyers represent victims of racial profiling and all types of police abuse.1 We worked as prosecutors and cops before becoming defense attorneys and civil rights lawyers.  We know how the other side thinks and how things really go down.

This article is about racial profiling in law enforcement.  If you have questions after reading it, we invite you to contact our California Civil Rights Lawyers for a consultation.

This article covers:

1. What is racial profiling?
2. Does racial profiling happen in California?
3. What law applies to racial profiling?
1. What is racial profiling?

Racial profiling is the targeting of someone by law enforcement based on his or her race, ethnicity or nationality.2 It assumes that a particular individual is more likely to be engaged in criminal activity just because of the color of his or skin or ethnicity.3

Here we are focused on the ways racial profiling shows up in on-the-street law enforcement situations, including:

  • pedestrian stops
  • traffic stops
  • body frisks
  • car searches
  • arrests4

Victims of racial profiling in California often are African-American or Hispanic.  But make no mistake.Asians5 and Middle Easterners.or people of any other group also can be impacted.

Let's look at an example of racial profiling:

Example:  Cleve is a nurse who lives in South Los Angeles.  He's African-American.  It's late at night and he pulls off the freeway on his way home from work at the hospital.  It's a high-crime neighborhood that is predominantly African-American and the territory of several gangs.  It also happens to be the place where Cleve owns a house.the place he calls home.  All of a sudden Cleve sees flashing lights in his rearview mirror.  He pulls over and undergoes questioning from cops about where he has been and where he is going.  He answers all the questions and shows identification.  Next the cops ask him to get out of the car so they can check for weapons.  Cleve is unhappy about it but complies.  The frisk reveals no weapons and Cleve finally is told he can go.

Cleve may have been the victim of racial profiling.  This would be the case if the cops pulled him over on the stereotyped and erroneous assumption that because he is African-American and lives in a high-crime neighborhood with gangs that he is engaged in criminal activity.

Specific suspect exception

There is at least one circumstance in which it would appear that cops are permitted to use race as a factor in making a stop.  This is when they have been alerted to be on the lookout for a particular individual who is in part identified by race.

Let's change the facts of our hypothetical to see what this means:

Change the facts:  An armed robbery just took place at a mini-mart located near the freeway exit where Cleve is driving.  Cops have an eyewitness description of the suspect.a single African-American male with hand tattoos driving a white sedan with a dented fender.  Cleve is African-American and also happens to be driving a white sedan with a dented fender.  When the cops see Cleve's car, they feel he may meet the suspect's description and thus pull him over to check.  When they get up close and can clearly tell Cleve has no hand tattoos and is not the suspect, they send him on his way.

The cops have probably not engaged in the pernicious practice of racial profiling under these circumstances.  They used race as a factor to pull Cleve over not because of any racial animus or discriminatory intent, but rather because they were on the lookout for a particular African-American suspect with hand tattoos and driving a white sedan with a dented fender.  Further, the tactics used by the cops were not especially aggressive.the investigatory stop did not escalate into a confrontation with force, handcuffs, frisk or full-blown search.6
2. Does racial profiling happen in California?

Unfortunately, the example with Cleve is all-too-real.

Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney Darrell York, who spent 24-years as a police officer, explains the problem this way:  "I served with many honorable cops.  But people have prejudices they might not be fully aware of.  And sometimes the problem runs deep.permeating every level of a police department -- including formal and informal policies from the top down."

CHP settlement

One big case involved allegations of racial profiling against Hispanics by the California Highway Patrol.  The plaintiffs alleged that CHP officers were disproportionately stopping and searching cars of minorities.

The case settled in 2003.  The CHP did not admit to doing anything wrong, but it did agree to cease the troublesome practices of consent searches, which can be coercive, and drug search pretext stops, which can be improperly used as cover-ups for profiling.7

Warning:  Driving hazard in LA

The hazard of "driving while black or brown" is not limited to areas patrolled by the CHP.  An extensive study by the ACLU of Southern California found that the Los Angeles Police Department disproportionately stopped, frisked, searched and arrested African-Americans and Hispanics.

The study also found that those stops led to fewer findings of weapons than the stops of white people.8 The report concluded:

These stark statistics from a single year of LAPD motor vehicle and pedestrian stops give a numeric lens for the lived experience of "driving while black" or "driving while Hispanic".. It is implausible that the higher frisk and search rates were justified by higher minority criminality, when these frisks and searches were less likely to uncover weapons, drugs or other types of contraband.9
3. What law applies to racial profiling?

Racial profiling is against the law in California and it violates the United States Constitution.

California statute

California Penal Code Section 13519.4 explicitly prohibits racial profiling.  It says just that:  "A law enforcement officer shall not engage in racial profiling."10

The statute goes on to express the California State Legislature's displeasure with the practice:

The Legislature finds and declares as follows:  (1) Racial profiling is a practice that presents a great danger to the fundamental principles of a democratic society.  It is abhorrent and cannot be tolerated.  (2) Motorists who have been stopped by the police for no reason other than the color of their skin or their apparent nationality or ethnicity are the victims of discriminatory practices.  (3) It is the intent of the Legislature.that more than additional training is required to address the pernicious practice of racial profiling and that enactment of this bill is in no way dispositive of the issue of how the state should deal with racial profiling.11

The law calls for enhanced police officer training and data collection efforts.12

Constitutional violations

Racial profiling implicates a suspect's Fourth Amendment constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures and Fourteenth Amendment constitutional right to equal protection of the law.13

Generally speaking, a cop is required to have probable cause to make an arrest or conduct a full-blown search.  However, investigatory "stops" and weapons "frisks" require somewhat less of a showing.  To make an investigatory stop, an officer must have

  • reasonable suspicion of criminal activity
  • supported by specific and articulable facts14

This determination of either probable cause or reasonable suspicion is based on the totality of the circumstances.  The analysis might include a number of contextual factors such as the crime rate in the area and the unambiguous evasiveness of the suspect -- but it has to be more than just a hunch.15

Whatever the factors, they cannot be motivated by racial animus or discriminatory intent.  And they cannot be pretexts for racism (although there is some question as to how certain "pretext" cases will be evaluated).  The Ninth Circuit has held: The citing of an area as "high-crime" requires careful examination by the court, because such a description, unless properly limited and factually based, can easily serve as a proxy for race or ethnicity.16

When your rights are violated you might be able to sue for damages or injunctive relief under federal or state law.  You can read more about the kinds of cases you might be able to bring in our related articles Police Misconduct and Civil Rights Violations, 42 U.S.C 1983 and Civil Court Cases.

Our California Civil Rights Lawyers Can Help.
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If you or a loved one has been racially profiled and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.

Are you a victim of racial profiling in Nevada? See our article about suing for racial profiling by police in Nevada.

Helpful links:

1Our California Civil Rights Lawyers have local offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, San Diego, San Francisco, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier.

2California Penal Code Section 13519.4 defines racial profiling as "the practice of detaining a suspect based on a broad set of criteria which casts suspicion on an entire class of people without any individualized suspicion of the particular person being stopped."

3See U.S. Department of Justice, A Resource Guide on Racial Profiling Data Collection Systems (November 2000) ("When seeking to determine whether allegations of racial profiling are accurate, any analysis concerning the nature and scope of the problem depends on the definition of racial profiling used. For this guide, racial profiling is defined as any police-initiated action that relies on the race, ethnicity, or national origin rather than the behavior of an individual or information that leads the police to a particular individual who has been identified as being, or having been, engaged in criminal activity.  There is almost uniform consensus on two corollary principles that follow from adopting this definition of racial profiling:  police may not use racial or ethnic stereotypes as factors in selecting whom to stop-and-search, and police may use race or ethnicity to determine whether a person matches a specific description of a particular suspect." Id at 3.)

4Discrimination based on race can also arise in other law enforcement contexts like immigration enforcement, gang injunctions, prison segregation, jury selection and anti-terrorism efforts.

5See Yong Ho Choi v. Randall Gaston City of Anaheim (9th Cir. 2000) 220 F.3d 1010 [case involving claims of racial profiling against Korean man]  The case ultimately settled for $50,000.

6But see Washington v. Lambert (9th Cir. 1996) 98 F.3d 1181 [involving Fourth Amendment violations arising out of detainment of two African-American men in Santa Monica on unreasonable notion they might have been armed robbery suspects] ("The only basis for linking Washington and Hicks to the supermarket robberies was the purported general similarity of their physical characteristics to those of the actual suspects:  two African-American males, one reasonably short and one reasonably tall.  Not only were the descriptions exceedingly vague and general -- there were, for example, no specific descriptive features such as facial hair or scars -- but Washington and Hicks did not even match the few physical details that did accompany the general physical descriptions.  The differences in weight were more than significant and exceedingly difficult to ignore.  For example, the difference in appearance between a short man of 170 to 190 pounds and a short man of 135 to 140 pounds is substantial.  If the general descriptions relied on here can be stretched to cover Washington and Hicks, then a significant percentage of African-American males walking, eating, going to work or to a movie, ball game or concert, with a friend or relative, might well find themselves subjected to similar treatment, at least if they are in a predominantly white neighborhood.")  See also Choi v. Anaheim, infra, 220 F.3d 1010 ("At the factual center of the case is the ease with which a member of a minority in a community may be confused with other persons - not even of the same race or ethnicity - who in the eyes of the majority look like him.  Here a Korean in his thirties, short and slim, was confused with a Vietnamese teenager, who was taller and heavier, apparently because to the community majority they looked 'Asian' or 'Oriental.'  Only stereotyping of this sort can account for the firm identification of Choi by those who had seen the actual murderer.  We cannot hold them accountable for their convention-bound vision.  We can, however, expect more of police moving in a community of many ethnicities.")  See also U.S. v. Montero-Camargo, infra, 208 F.3d 1122; Price v. Kramer (9th Cir. 2000) F.3d 1237.

7See ACLU Northern California news release (Feb 27, 2003) ("The settlement establishes the CHP as the first law enforcement agency in the nation to prohibit their officers from asking motorists for consent to search their cars or persons.  The ACLU contended in its lawsuit that giving officers the discretion to seek consent when they did not have probable cause to search resulted in a disproportionate number of motorists of color being subjected to extensive searches, and was a critical component of racial profiling.. The settlement agreement also bans drug-related pretext stops, which means that CHP officers cannot use minor traffic violations as an excuse for stopping and searching a car for illegal drugs unless the officers have probable cause or reasonable suspicion of drug activity.")

8See Ian Ayres (Yale Law School) and Jonathan Borowsky for the ACLU of Southern California, A Study of Racially Disparate Outcomes in the Los Angeles Police Department (October 2008) ("Per 10,000 residents, the black stop rate is 3,400 stops higher than the white stop rate, and the Hispanic stop rate is almost 360 stops higher.  Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks are 127% more likely and stopped Hispanics are 43% more likely to be frisked.  Relative to stopped whites, stopped blacks are 76% more likely and stopped Hispanics are 16% more likely to be searched..  Frisked African Americans are 42.3% less likely to be found with a weapon than frisked whites and that frisked Hispanics are 31.8% less likely to have a weapon than frisked non-Hispanic whites..." Abstract, p. i.)  It is important to note that the same data can be interpreted in different ways and it is thus not surprising that when the LAPD analyzed this data it came to a different conclusion than the ACLU.

9Id at 27.  Allegations and inquiries have also been made in respect of racial profiling in other California cities.  See 2005-2006 Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury Report, Racial Profiling by San Jose Police Department - Perception vs Reality [finding that "there are legitimate concerns regarding individual police excesses" but "no systematic sanctioned program of racial profiling being implemented by the SJPD administration]  See also Legislative Analyst Office, An Evaluation of Racial Profiling Data Collection and Training (August 2007) [finding apparent racial disparities in law enforcement stops in San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento and Riverside but noting that such disparities may be explained by non-race factors, such as age or time of day or other reasons, and in general concluding that assessment is difficult -- despite the fact that nearly 100 law enforcement agencies collect such data in the state -- because of inconsistent definitions and standards].  The Torrance Police Department drew ire from racial justice groups after an alleged racially motivated traffic stop of an African-American minister who was picking up his daughter from school.  See also Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Racial Profiling Rears its Ugly Head in Torrance, CA (March 15, 2010).  But a jury found Torrance cops did not racially profile in a 2003 case.

10California Penal Code Section 13519.4(f).

11California Penal Code Section 13519.4(d).  See also strong language used by US Department of Justice ("`Racial profiling" at its core concerns the invidious use of race or ethnicity as a criterion in conducting stops, searches and other law enforcement investigative procedures.  It is premised on the erroneous assumption that any particular individual of one race or ethnicity is more likely to engage in misconduct than any particular individual of another race or ethnicity.  Racial profiling in law enforcement is not merely wrong, but also ineffective.  Race-based assumptions in law enforcement perpetuate negative racial stereotypes that are harmful to our rich and diverse democracy, and materially impair our efforts to maintain a fair and just society.") See USDOJ Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies (June 2003).

12California Penal Code Section 13519.4 ("(a) The commission shall develop and disseminate guidelines and training for all law enforcement officers in California as described in subdivision (a) of Section 13510 and who adhere to the standards approved by the commission, on the racial and cultural differences among the residents of this state.  The course or courses of instruction and the guidelines shall stress understanding and respect for racial and cultural differences, and development of effective, noncombative methods of carrying out law enforcement duties in a racially and culturally diverse environment.  (b) The course of basic training for law enforcement officers shall include adequate instruction on racial and cultural diversity in order to foster mutual respect and cooperation between law enforcement and members of all racial and cultural groups.  In developing the training, the commission shall consult with appropriate groups and individuals having an interest and expertise in the field of cultural awareness and diversity.  (c) For the purposes of this section the following shall apply:  (1) "Disability," "gender," "nationality," "religion," and "sexual orientation" have the same meaning as in Section 422.55.  (2) "Culturally diverse" and "cultural diversity" include, but are not limited to, disability, gender, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation issues.   (3) "Racial" has the same meaning as "race or ethnicity" in Section 422.55.  (d) The Legislature finds and declares as follows:   (1) Racial profiling is a practice that presents a great danger to the fundamental principles of a democratic society.  It is abhorrent and cannot be tolerated.  (2) Motorists who have been stopped by the police for no reason other than the color of their skin or their apparent nationality or ethnicity are the victims of discriminatory practices.  (3) It is the intent of the Legislature in enacting the changes to Section 13519.4 of the Penal Code made by the act that added this subdivision that more than additional training is required to address the pernicious practice of racial profiling and that enactment of this bill is in no way dispositive of the issue of how the state should deal with racial profiling.  (4) The working men and women in California law enforcement risk their lives every day.  The people of California greatly appreciate the hard work and dedication of law enforcement officers in protecting public safety.  The good name of these officers should not be tarnished by the actions of those few who commit discriminatory practices.  (e) "Racial profiling," for purposes of this section, is the practice of detaining a suspect based on a broad set of criteria which casts suspicion on an entire class of people without any individualized suspicion of the particular person being stopped.  (f) A law enforcement officer shall not engage in racial profiling.  (g) Every law enforcement officer in this state shall participate in expanded training as prescribed and certified by the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.  (h) The curriculum shall utilize the Tools for Tolerance for Law Enforcement Professionals framework and shall include and examine the patterns, practices, and protocols that make up racial profiling.  This training shall prescribe patterns, practices, and protocols that prevent racial profiling. In developing the training, the commission shall consult with appropriate groups and individuals having an interest and expertise in the field of racial profiling.  The course of instruction shall include, but not be limited to, adequate consideration of each of the following subjects:  (1) Identification of key indices and perspectives that make up cultural differences among residents in a local community.  (2) Negative impact of biases, prejudices, and stereotyping on effective law enforcement, including examination of how historical perceptions of discriminatory enforcement practices have harmed police-community relations.  (3) The history and the role of the civil rights movement and struggles and their impact on law enforcement.  (4) Specific obligations of officers in preventing, reporting, and responding to discriminatory or biased practices by fellow officers.  (5) Perspectives of diverse, local constituency groups and experts on particular cultural and police-community relations issues in a local area.  (i) Once the initial basic training is completed, each law enforcement officer in California as described in subdivision (a) of Section 13510 who adheres to the standards approved by the commission shall be required to complete a refresher course every five years thereafter, or on a more frequent basis if deemed necessary, in order to keep current with changing racial and cultural trends.  (j) The Legislative Analyst shall conduct a study of the data being voluntarily collected by those jurisdictions that have instituted a program of data collection with regard to racial profiling, including, but not limited to, the California Highway Patrol, the City of San Jose, and the City of San Diego, both to ascertain the incidence of racial profiling and whether data collection serves to address and prevent such practices, as well as to assess the value and efficacy of the training herein prescribed with respect to preventing local profiling.  The Legislative Analyst may prescribe the manner in which the data is to be submitted and may request that police agencies collecting such data submit it in the requested manner.  The Legislative Analyst shall provide to the          Legislature a report and recommendations with regard to racial profiling by July 1, 2002.")

13See Whren v. U.S. (1996) 517 U.S. 806 [involving arrest of African-Americans in a known drug area of the District of Columbia where initial stop was for traffic violations] ("We think these cases foreclose any argument that the constitutional reasonableness of traffic stops depends on the actual motivations of the individual officers involved.  We of course agree with petitioners that the Constitution prohibits selective enforcement of the law based on considerations such as race.  But the constitutional basis for objecting to intentionally discriminatory application of laws is the Equal Protection Clause, not the Fourth Amendment.  Subjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable cause Fourth Amendment analysis.") See also USDOJ Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies, infra ("As the Supreme Court has held, this constitutional prohibition against selective enforcement of the law based on race draw[s] on ordinary equal protection standards.  Thus, impermissible selective enforcement based on race occurs when the challenged policy has a discriminatory effect and . . . was motivated by a discriminatory purpose [citations and internal quotations omitted])  See also U.S. v. Montero-Camargo (9th Cir. 2000) 208 F.3d 1122 [involving an arrest of Hispanics near the California-Mexican border] ("Stops based on race or ethnic appearance send the underlying message to all our citizens that those who are not white are judged by the color of their skin alone.  Such stops also send a clear message that those who are not white enjoy a lesser degree of constitutional protection -- that they are in effect assumed to be potential criminals first and individuals second..We decide no broad constitutional questions here.  Rather, we are confronted with the narrow question of how to square the Fourth Amendment's requirement of individualized reasonable suspicion with the fact that the majority of the people who pass through the checkpoint in question are Hispanic.  In order to answer that question, we conclude that, at this point in our nation's history, and given the continuing changes in our ethnic and racial composition, Hispanic appearance is, in general, of such little probative value that it may not be considered as a relevant factor where particularized or individualized suspicion is required.  Moreover, we conclude, for the reasons we have indicated, that it is also not an appropriate factor.")

14See Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1 ("And in justifying the particular intrusion the police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.")

15See Illinois v. Wardlow (2000) 528 U.S. 119 ("In this case, moreover, it was not merely respondent's presence in an area of heavy narcotics trafficking that aroused the officers' suspicion but his unprovoked flight upon noticing the police..Headlong flight - wherever it occurs - is the consummate act of evasion:  it is not necessarily indicative of wrongdoing, but it is certainly suggestive of such.  In reviewing the propriety of an officer's conduct, courts do not have available empirical studies dealing with inferences drawn from suspicious behavior, and we cannot reasonably demand scientific certainty from judges or law enforcement officers where none exists.  Thus, the determination of reasonable suspicion must be based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior.")

16See U.S. v. Montero-Camargo, infra, 208 F.3d 1122.  But see Whren v. U.S., infra, 517 U.S. 806, in which Court shifts certain pretext-based arguments (at least in traffic stop cases) away from Fourth Amendment analysis to Equal Protection analysis.



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