But the picture changes if troopers believe they have reason to search a driver or passenger. A Seattle Times investigation found that minorities are searched 2½ times as often as whites, a finding that points to unequal enforcement.
The Times analyzed 1.7 million traffic stops over 27 months, interviewed numerous motorists pulled over by the Patrol, spoke with experts on racial profiling, and rode along with troopers on state highways. What emerged was a complex portrait of how the Patrol performs one of its most crucial tasks, enforcing the law fairly among races.
Among the findings:
• Getting searched on the highway is unusual. The chance of being searched, once pulled over, is 1 in 37. Searches during stops involving minor violations, such as speeding, make up only one-tenth of all searches.
• When searched, whites are found with contraband more often than minorities are.
• The differences in search rates between minorities and whites vary depending on the region. In the Yakima area, for example, minorities are searched five times as often as whites.
Racial profiling can expose a police department to costly lawsuits and ruin minority relations, squandering money and goodwill, two building blocks of effective policing. As a result, Washington State Patrol Chief Ronal Serpas says he works hard to stay on top of this potentially divisive issue by having troopers note the race of all people stopped and having that data analyzed to catch possible problems early on.
Serpas said a preliminary analysis, by Washington State University researchers, matches a finding by The Times that minority and white drivers are pulled over at the same rate — making Washington one of only a handful of state patrols that have been shown to be colorblind at the traffic-stop level.
When it comes to searches, he said, the preliminary analysis doesn't show a systematic problem, but he said that high search rates in the Yakima region need to be examined further.
The difference in how whites and minorities are searched concerns some community leaders.
"While they are sensitive to who they stop, what follow-up actions they take is where racism, or some form of discrimination, appears," said Oscar Eason, past president of Seattle's NAACP chapter.
A national expert on racial profiling puts a finer point on it. David Harris, a University of Toledo law professor who has written a book on the topic, says, "It's about how race plays a role — whether conscious or not."
Out on patrol
On a recent afternoon, Trooper Richard Welch, 50, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel with short, graying hair, patrols a stretch of Highway 97 that cuts across the Yakama Nation reservation near Wapato, a Central Washington farming town with a large Latino population.
It's near the end of his shift when he scrutinizes a black Chevrolet Beretta flashing past in the other direction.
"He's not wearing a seat belt," Welch says.
He makes a quick U-turn, flips on his flashing lights, catches up to car and pulls it over.
As Welch approaches the Beretta, he sees a young driver with long, black hair woven into a tight braid.
If he is a Yakama member, Welch will give him a warning. Troopers can't give out tickets for minor violations such as speeding to tribal members driving within their own reservation. They have immunity for minor traffic offenses but not for more serious infractions.
The man is a Native American but not a Yakama, so Welch can ticket him, and does — for no proof of insurance and not wearing a seat belt.
Ten minutes after Welch stopped him, the driver pulls away with $576 in tickets — and a seat belt strapped across his chest.
The short encounter exemplifies the State Patrol's goal — stopping motorists for the infraction, not because of the perceived race of the driver. In each of the Patrol's eight districts, troopers pull over minorities and whites at virtually the same rate, the Times analysis shows.
In states such as New Jersey and Maryland, state troopers have been found to stop minority drivers at several times the rate of white drivers. New Jersey taxpayers have spent at least $19 million settling lawsuits over racial profiling.
The Washington State Patrol has avoided the lawsuits and federal intervention that have buried other departments. Even so, it has been stung by accusations of discrimination. In 1999, State Patrol officers were supposedly on the lookout for two black men in a blue Nissan who had brandished a gun from the car.
Troopers stopped Alford Ervin, a jail guard in Renton. They ordered him from the car at gunpoint and searched him. Ervin alleged the troopers stopped and searched him merely because he was black; the state said it was a regrettable case of mistaken identity and settled recently for $100,000.
Welch says his fellow troopers know they work under a microscope. He also has watched the Yakima Police Department wrestle with accusations of racism from the city's Latino community. "I concentrate to try and make sure I'm not doing that," he said.
Aside from matters of fairness and the scrutiny of higher-ups, Welch says it's hard to purposely discriminate when cars are zipping by: "At least 80 percent of the time I haven't seen the guy when I stop him."
A skilled snoop
Trooper Matt Couchman, a muscular 28-year-old, is working a special patrol on Interstate 82. Unlike most troopers, whose primary duty is traffic enforcement and helping motorists, Couchman looks for suspicious cars to search.
A black Ford Thunderbird speeds past Couchman's parked patrol car.
"That Thunderbird had an obscured license plate," he says. "We'll go take a look at it." He floors the gas pedal and turns on his car's flashing lights.
Couchman's discoveries often start by pursuing drivers with small infractions — tailgating, speeding, a broken headlight, faulty plates.
He catches up to the Thunderbird and sees two men inside. The passenger, silhouetted through the tinted rear window, bends down as if reaching for something on the floor or under the seat.
Suddenly, Couchman is nervous. Is it a reach for a weapon? He knows well the tragedy of Trooper James Saunders, shot and killed at a routine traffic stop in Pasco three years earlier.
The car pulls over. The passenger's furtive movements after being flagged down open the legal door for Couchman to check him for weapons.
He tells the passenger, a bearded, middle-aged white man, to step out of the car. In a patdown, Couchman finds hard objects in the man's jacket pocket.
Drug pipes, the man replies. Found them on the side of the road.
Couchman turns up a leather pouch. Inside are three small glass pipes and a plastic bag with a residue that later tests positive for methamphetamine.
Couchman arrests and handcuffs the passenger. The driver is clean.
Couchman carries a towel to the back of the Thunderbird. Its license plate is grimy, but its numbers clearly can be seen. He wipes the plate and rear lights.
Thirty-five minutes after the stop began, the driver gets back in the Thunderbird and pulls away. His friend sits in the back of the patrol car, bound for jail.
Couchman said the search and bust were a "very textbook" case of what he and his task-force colleagues must do to fight crimes: make a traffic stop, look for suspicious behavior, search for contraband and, when appropriate, make an arrest.
Troopers also can ask a driver for permission to search a car for any reason.
But Couchman says he looks for suspicious behavior, which in his mind includes a driver moving furtively, breathing quickly, answering questions with a cracking voice, or having laundry soap on the car floor, possibly as a way to deflect drug-sniffing dogs.
"What's going on here?"
After reviewing those findings, a racial-profiling expert, Hubert Locke, former dean of the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, asked, "What's going on here? Why are officers choosing to request those searches in those instances?"
The differences in search rates were similar when the officers performed "consent searches." If troopers suspect something but don't have enough evidence of a crime to look through a car, they need the motorist's consent.
Racial differences in consent searches can be a "strong indication of how race or ethnicity affects thinking about who's suspicious enough to be searched," said profiling expert Harris.
Since the Patrol began tracking consent searches only in February, the numbers are too small to draw broad conclusions from that type of search alone. Even so, Lisa Daugaard, a lawyer with the Seattle-King County Public Defender Association's Racial Disparity Project, sees evidence of racial bias in the repeated pattern of minorities being searched much more often than whites.
"The request to search by consent is entirely discretionary, so it tends to flow from officer hunch," Daugaard said. One trooper's concept of suspicion may be another's idea of bias.
Case of profiling?
Rolando Adame, a prominent Latino lawyer from Yakima and part-time municipal judge, believes he was a victim of such a hunch.
Adame was driving on Interstate 90 to the Ephrata courthouse several years ago in his maroon 1989 Corvette, its cruise control set at 71 miles per hour, when a trooper pulled him over.
Adame told him he was going only 1 mph over the speed limit.
"That's right," he recalled the trooper saying.
"Do you want to search my car?" Adame asked.
"Yes," the trooper said.
"You're not, so I want your ticket," Adame said.
Instead, the trooper returned to his car and drove away.
Adame believes he was pulled over and asked to consent to a search because he fit the trooper's profile of a drug dealer: a Mexican American driving a nice sports car.
Danger of stereotypes
Capt. Dave Karnitz, commander of the Yakima District, said his troopers are told that treating people differently because of race is not only illegal but bad policing. Police might overlook a criminal who doesn't fit a stereotype, he said.
Several reasons have been offered to explain the disparity, ranging from the benign to racial profiling by enough troopers to skew the numbers.
An explanation for the disparity, says a prominent researcher in racial profiling, John Lamberth, a private consultant in Wilmington, Del., is that minorities may be more nervous around police. Troopers may misinterpret that as suspicious behavior.
Another factor that may contribute to the skewed search rates: Some troopers believe minorities are more likely to commit certain crimes, such as dealing drugs.
Chris Powell is a second-generation Patrol veteran who retired in 1998 after serving as spokesman for the Spokane district. He says that if troopers know the race of members of a drug outfit in their area, why not focus on that minority.
"Their experience, their training, their inclination tell them it may be this person of color that's a higher suspect," he said. "I don't know how you change that."
Dan Davis, recently retired head of the Patrol's Investigative Assistance Division, which includes narcotics investigations, said, "Many major heroin- and cocaine-trafficking organizations involve people of Hispanic origin. Is that the elephant in the room that people don't want to look at?"
Mexican drug organizations figure prominently in reports by the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a program of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy that supplies intelligence to police agencies statewide.
But Davis said such reports do not mean most Latino drivers are running drugs and are no excuse for racial profiling.
The State Patrol's own data disprove the notion that certain ethnic groups are more likely to possess something illegal in their cars.
When just searches resulting from minor violations are examined, whites are found with contraband 20.5 percent of the time, compared to 18 percent for blacks and Latinos. Native Americans are found with contraband 36.4 percent of the time. The researchers and the Patrol cannot explain that difference.
Drugs are a top reason to search cars and drivers, troopers such as Couchman say. He and three other Yakima troopers work on the Serious Highway Crime Apprehension Team, a 2-year-old program started in the Yakima area and being expanded statewide.
Couchman said his supervisors and team discourage racial profiling. "It's not only unethical, it's illegal, and if you're profiling, you're missing a lot of things," he said.
Rather than race, Couchman said, troopers look for signs that might warrant closer scrutiny, such as modifications to the car that suggest hidden compartments; unrolled sleeping bags and fast-food wrappers that indicate a long, hard drive; and conflicting explanations of their journey when drivers and passengers are separated and questioned.
Lisa Sifuentes, a 34-year-old elementary-school teaching assistant from Toppenish, near Yakima, says she had none of those signs when Couchman and a colleague searched her earlier this year. She says it was simply because she's Latino.
It started when her boyfriend called her, asking for a ride. He had been driving with a suspended license and was about to turn onto a state highway when he noticed a trooper stopped near the intersection. He parked at a nearby convenience store and telephoned Sifuentes.
She picked him up and pulled onto Highway 97. Soon, two patrol cars approached and she was motioned to pull over.
She said troopers told her she had been weaving from lane to lane. They wanted her to get out of the car so it could be searched.
"We've had a lot of problems with drug smuggling in this area," she recalled a trooper saying.
"Is this legal?" she asked. "Don't you need a search warrant?"
"Why do I need a search warrant; do you have something to hide?" she recalled the trooper saying.
Under most circumstances, police do need a search warrant or probable cause, such as the smell of marijuana. In a case such as Sifuentes', they would need permission.
Troopers often document that permission by asking drivers first to sign a form allowing a search. Sifuentes said she was handed the form, but it was after they looked through her car.
They found nothing illegal. She wasn't ticketed, just given a lane-change warning. Sifuentes said she felt humiliated, standing beside the road as people drove by and stared.
Told of Sifuentes' account, Couchman said he didn't recall that particular stop but would have asked for her consent before searching.
He said he sometimes tells drivers he wants to search their cars for drugs, then watches if they get overly nervous, which to him suggests they have something to hide. Highway 97 "is a known route for narcotics," he explained.
Daugaard, the public defender, objects to that tactic. She said the State Patrol should limit its requests for consent searches to cases in which troopers can identify clear, objective signs of criminal behavior. She pointed to a recent New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that police should not ask for a consent search without a clear reason for suspicion — mere nervousness of a driver was inadequate.
Patrol Chief Serpas said his troopers don't search on a mere hunch and he is committed to finding why minorities are being searched at different rates than whites.
The Patrol has already spent $60,000 for Washington State professors to analyze the agency's enforcement. It wants to spend more to better track searches and to identify Patrol areas or individual officers who skew from the norm.
"It's the right thing to do," Serpas said.