News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 21, 2013

Police, prosecutors don’t always know race before traffic stop, charges filed

Lisa Trigg
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Statewide data on marijuana arrests indicate that in Wabash Valley counties along the Indiana-Illinois state line, black Americans are more likely to be arrested on marijuana possession charges than are their white counterparts.

Data in a recent study by the American Civil Liberties Union looks at the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting figures from 2000 to 2010. Among those counties identified as having racial disparities above the national average are Vigo, Vermillion, Sullivan, Knox, Gibson, Vanderburgh and Warrick counties — which include the high-traffic corridors of Indiana 63 and U.S. 40.

The ACLU report states that marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites nationwide. However, arrests for marijuana possession are much higher for blacks, and in Indiana, blacks are almost four times as likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than their white counterparts.

Sgt. Joe Watts, an Indiana State Trooper with more than 15 years of experience in road patrol in Vermillion and Vigo County, told The Tribune-Star that in his experience, marijuana usage is probably equal among blacks and whites. However, he said that he also found that people in possession of more than 30 grams of marijuana tended to be transporting marijuana from northern Indiana or Chicago to various destinations along the U.S. 41 and Indiana 63 corridor.

“When we are out on patrol checking for speeders,” Watts said, “we cannot see an approaching driver’s race or ethnicity at a distance. But we can see their speed. When we make a traffic stop, it is then we can see the person. And if the person is found to be in possession of marijuana, we make the arrest.”

Many times, people southbound on 63 are driving south to visit family in the Wabash Valley, or go to a college campus, or a penal institution, or are passing through to Evansville or points beyond. Those might be destinations for the delivery of marijuana, and that could be an explanation for the presence of marijuana resulting higher arrests along that corridor, he said.

Interestingly, an examination of the county-level data used by the ACLU in its study showed only two years with multiple arrests of blacks in Vermillion County. In 2006, seven arrests were recorded, two in 2010. But based on the number of black residents of the county, compared with white residents and their number of arrests, Vermillion County has a high disparity of arrests for blacks.

Vigo County’s disparity is three to four times more arrests for blacks on marijuana possession charges during the same time.

“That’s news to me,” said Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt when asked about the higher incidence of possession charges for blacks.

“When we get files and charges and try to work out plea offers,” Modesitt said of filing criminal charges, “there’s not a photo of the defendant in there. So we don’t know who is black, white, Hispanic, Asian or any race.”

But he suggested that it may come down to marijuana as a drug of choice to be transported in a large enough quantity to warrant a possession charge.

Modesitt said he was also somewhat suspect of the ACLU study, noting that there is a large effort nationwide to decriminalize marijuana, and that push is now being seen in Indiana. The prosecutor said he is not in favor of decriminalization.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.