COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The State Highway Patrol uses drug-sniffing dogs on Ohio stops involving black drivers at a disproportionately higher rate than stops involving whites, accounting for 28 percent of the nearly 17,000 stops where dogs were used from 2013 to 2017, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press.
This disparity is the case even though blacks make up about 13 percent of the population both nationally and in Ohio, and about 14 percent of drivers stopped by the patrol overall in Ohio are black. The patrol made about 5 million total stops during the time period.
While whites represent about 80 percent of Ohioans, about 60 percent of stops where dogs were used involved whites, the patrol data showed.
The patrol produced the data at the request of the AP after a federal appeals court last month criticized the patrol's arrest of a black driver on the Ohio Turnpike in 2014 and tossed evidence used to pull over the driver. The case is expected to return to a federal judge where the man's conviction is likely to be overturned.
The Ohio data is consistent with numerous studies that show blacks are disproportionately punished at every step in cases involving minor drug crimes, said Jolene Forman, a staff attorney for the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance.
"Black people are not only more likely to be stopped, they're more likely to be searched, arrested, convicted, and sentenced, and when they are sentenced they're likely to be sentenced to harsher terms," said Forman.
Last year, University of North Carolina researchers studied traffic stop data in 16 states — including Ohio — and found that with few exceptions law enforcement agencies searched black drivers at higher rates than white.
In Ohio, blacks in most counties are stopped more often than whites, and are more likely to be searched and arrested, according to data on nearly 6.2 million police stops in Ohio from 2010 to 2015 analyzed by the Stanford Open Policing Project. The studies did not specifically study drug dog usage.
In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union determined black motorists in Illinois were 55 percent more likely than white motorists to be subjected to a drug dog sniff, even though white motorists were 14 percent more likely than black motorists to be found with contraband during searches by police in response to a dog alert.
In the Ohio court ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals questioned the initial evidence that Trooper Adam Hartford used to pull over driver Tyrone Warfield in 2014. The court also noted a second trooper's testimony at a hearing on Nov. 5, 2015, that he took a drug-sniffing dog more often to stops with minorities.
"Out of the last year that you have performed a drug dog walk-around, is it fair to say that more times than not that has been with a person that was a minority?" Donna Grill, a Warfield defense attorney, asked trooper Eric Stroud during a hearing.
"Yes," Stroud replied, according to a transcript of the hearing.
The patrol says race doesn't play a role in the use of dogs.
"Drug sniffing canines are deployed based upon the presence of criminal indicators, not race," said patrol spokesman Lt. Robert Sellers. Those indicators could include the origin, destination and length of trips, visible contents in cars, odors, statements by occupants and other factors.
Once a dog is used, a "positive alert" means the odor of narcotics has been detected, but that does not necessarily mean drugs are in a vehicle, Sellers said. The patrol says it doesn't track the outcome of dog usage, because a positive alert is only one factor leading to an arrest on drug charges. Patrol dog usage could include dogs borrowed from non-patrol agencies.
In Ohio, the patrol studies its traffic stop data and trooper actions monthly, quarterly, annually and every two years to ensure a bias-free operation, Sellers said.
Warfield, of Chicago, was on the Ohio Turnpike when he was stopped for allegedly driving outside his lane, according to court records. Over the next few minutes, he was unsuccessfully tested for drunken driving, questioned about trafficking in untaxed cigarettes and suspected of drug activity.
Eventually, Warfield was arrested based on dozens of debit and credit cards found in his car and later convicted of a counterfeit charge.
Warfield completed a two-month prison sentence in November and is on two years of supervised release.
The Constitution does not give officers the power to "overpolice" minorities based on suspicious behavior, the appeals court said in ruling against the evidence used to pull Warfield over.
"The use of a drug dog — whose only function is to search for illegal drugs — makes this seem less like an investigation into untaxed cigarettes and more like a fishing expedition," the court said.
Associated Press Writer John Seewer in Toledo and AP data editor Meghan Hoyer in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.