Durham News

September 4, 2014

Durham City Council wants written consent for traffic-stop searches

The city has yet to formally require police officers to get written permission for consent searches of stopped vehicles, but at Thursday’s work session a majority of the members made it clear they want it.

Durham police don’t have to start getting written consent to search stopped vehicles yet, but a majority of City Council members on Thursday made it clear they want it.

Mayor Bill Bell set the tone at the start of the council’s discussion.

“There should be a written consent form,” he said. “A person being detained should be informed he could agree or not.”

Written consent for traffic-stop vehicle searches has generated the most comment, and support, of any of the 43 recommendations the city’s Human Relations Commission made last spring after six months of public hearings on community allegations of police bias and racial profiling.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said officers should be “encouraged” to get stopped individuals’ signatures on printed consent forms, but he has recommended letting the officer decide whether to use the form or get verbal consent.

Requiring signed forms could endanger officers’ safety or “situational control,” he wrote in his report to the council.

That recommendation met immediate criticism from a number of organizations, such as the Durham Peoples’ Alliance, NAACP and Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, which support written forms to reduce a disparity in the numbers of whites and blacks Durham police stop and search.

Bell, though, made the issue personal.

“I just put myself in that position,” the mayor said. “If an officer stops me ... I want the written statement.

“I want to know why am I being stopped and why you want to search my car,” he said.

The council discussed Bonfield’s recommendations at its Monday regular meeting, then continued for about two more hours Thursday with the intention of letting him know how to proceed.

Bonfield said he would respond to the council’s comments by its Sept. 18 work session. In Durham, the city manager, not the council, has director authority over the police department.

On Thursday, several council members spelled out why they differed from Bonfield’s position on written consent forms.

“This is very simple for me,” said Mayor Pro-Tem Cora Cole-McFadden. “I am the mother of a black male. ... I speak for the mothers of black males in this city. I want every piece of documentation.”

“With the numbers we have and the pattern (of racial disparity) that has persisted in this city, I want (my son) to be safe,” she said.

Councilman Steve Schewel said he could understand that officers might think having to get signed consent would make their jobs harder, but did not see that it put an officer in more danger.

“What we’d be doing is we’d be making sure people know what their rights are,” he said.

“If I have to sign something, I am more cognizant of what my rights really are,” Schewel said. “I have a right not to have my car searched, and I can decide. ... That’s a basic right, and it outweighs for me these other issues.”

Councilman Eddie Davis did raise a caveat, that a motorist who refuses permission to search may drive away, even if the officer thinks the person is a criminal.

“Are those people being allowed to move on and create even more of a problem?” Davis asked Deputy Police Chief Larry Smith.

“If it’s purely consensual and you say ‘No,’ that ends the encounter,” Smith said. To search without consent, an officer must have probable cause to believe a search would reveal evidence of crime.

“I’m troubled by possibility of someone who could do harm ... being able to walk away,” said Davis.

Councilwoman Diane Catotti asked about using body cameras to record stops and searches, saying that individuals with “a first- and second-grade reading level” might not understand a printed form.

Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh said the department is researching the available technology and plans to field-test some equipment in the next 90 days. Bell, though, said bringing cameras into the conversation was “overcomplicating” the issue of documented consent.

“I don’t care if you’ve got video cameras, audio ... people understand Yes or No,” Bell said. “You’re simply saying, ‘Can I search your car? Can I do it or can’t I do it?’ ”

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