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Tighten up on searches, jurors say

[02/02/01] Police should get written permission before searching someone’s vehicle and not rely on a nod, according to grand jurors who issued their report and adjourned Thursday.

“We recommend that police officers secure a signed Consent to Search form from the suspect when feasible to ensure greater chance of conviction,” the report says.

Under U.S. Supreme Court interpretations, police must normally obtain a warrant from a judge to search a vehicle for contraband or other evidence. A way around the warrant requirement is for authorities to get permission from drivers. It’s easier and faster and, Police Chief Mitchell Dent said, the forms are not always feasible for every search.

“There are some situations where there is only one officer at the initial stop,” Dent said in response to the grand jury’s suggestion.

When the forms are used and an arrest is made, the consent form is presented in court along with evidence collected during the search. That makes it more likely that evidence will stand up in court.

Dent said all patrol officers have the forms and at any stop where enough officers are present, the form will be used before a search. To help in situations where that is not practical, he said, officers will be given recorders to tape a verbal consent.

Elsewhere in their report, grand jurors, in session since Monday, commended Dent and his department for working toward national accreditation.

Because previous grand juries had criticized the police department for its presentation of cases, police officers who made presentations this term rehearsed in advance before a mock jury made up of fellow police officers, Dent said. The officers were critiqued and given recommendations before going in front of the grand jury.

“We even got a couple of compliments for how the cases were presented,” he said. “And that really is a boost for the officers.”

Other recommendations included:

Additional training for the police personnel in evidence gathering and documentation.

Additional funding for youth activities in the city and county to possibly include mentoring programs and wilderness camps.

Good housekeeping practices seen in jail facilities should be commended.

A former grand jury’s recommendation that the sheriff’s deputies salaries be increased to at least the police department levels should be followed.

Law enforcement officers should continue to visit local schools to educate the students on crime and its consequences.

The Board of Supervisors should be commended for providing informative handouts on county operations for grand jurors.

In addition to writing the report, jurors heard evidence in 75 cases, voting indictments in 68 of them. The panels, selected at random from voter rolls three times each year, meet in closed sessions, interview public officials and inspect public buildings and programs.