Searching for Narcotics in San Diego: Preliminary Findings from the San Diego Search Warrant Project
46 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2000
The San Diego Search Warrant Project is undertaking one of the most in-depth studies of search warrant practices since the National Center for State Courts' classic study (Duizend, Sutton & Carter, The Search Warrant Process, 1984). In this article, we report the results of our study of narcotics search warrants. Examining more than 75 variables, we explore issues central to the integrity of the warrant process, analyze racial disparities among search warrant targets, and look at sources of probable cause, judge shopping, the effect of delayed execution upon success rates, and court dispositions. Some of the highlights are described briefly below.
We found significant racial disparity with respect to those targeted by narcotics search warrants. The overwhelming majority of the searches involved minority residences. Only 14% of the narcotics warrants targeted White subjects. African Americans were four times more likely to be targeted by a search warrant for narcotics than Whites. Hispanics were twice as likely as Whites to be the subject of such a search. Controlling for type of drug, we found these disparities were related to search warrants for cocaine. By contrast, search warrants for methamphetamine targeted racial groups in roughly the same proportion as each group reportedly used that drug. However, less than one percent of the warrants for cocaine (both rock and powder) targeted Whites.
Our study of probable cause affidavits revealed that police rely heavily upon anonymous tips and confidential informants. However, in contrast to the 1984 study, police routinely stated in these affidavits that they corroborated such tips by conducting a controlled buy. This remarkable finding is viewed with some caution, however, in light of our discovery that many affidavits were created by using a computer program containing boilerplate paragraphs which parrot technically correct statements of generic probable cause, including the description of a proper controlled buy. The danger such "cookie cutter" affidavits pose to the integrity of the search warrant process is discussed in the context of another anomaly - the phantom affidavit. In half of the cases involving confidential informants, the officer who signed the affidavit under oath did not have personal knowledge of the informant's background and activities, but simply relayed information (constituting double or triple hearsay) reported by another unsworn officer.
The study documented that a small, select group of judges issued 75% of all narcotics search warrants. The success rates of the warrants issued by these judges varied widely. Less that half of all search warrants issued resulted in recovery of the drug sought. While 63% of the search warrants for methamphetamine were successful, only 28% of the warrants for rock cocaine retrieved their target. Weapons were found in only 14% of the searches. Where drugs were seized, all of the dispositions that could be traced resulted in guilty pleas, with a median time to disposition of just 34 days. Only three motions to suppress were filed and none was granted.
Our findings regarding the use of unidentified informants, phantom affidavits, and computer generated boilerplate, when juxtaposed against the reality that search warrants are rarely challenged in court, give rise to concern that the search warrant process has become too easy, and is vulnerable to abuse because the mechanisms for ensuring accountability and integrity exist only in theory rather than practice.
JEL Classification: K14, K40
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation