Victor Noriega was driving a little fast, maybe 5 to 10 miles over the speed limit. There had been a February storm, and Noriega was on his way to apply ice melt at a condominium for his work. He was running late.
The lights of a Maynard police cruiser flashed in his rearview mirror.
When he paid the $105 speeding ticket, Noriega didn’t notice that the officer had written a “W” in the box on the citation labeled “RACE,” logging him as white.
“White? I’m not white,” Noriega, who is from Guatemala, said with a laugh when told about the designation. “I’m Spanish.”
Police across Massachusetts have for years routinely labeled men with Hispanic surnames as white on traffic citations, a USA TODAY Network investigation by the Cape Cod Times, Worcester Telegram & Gazette and USA TODAY has found. The erasure skews statistics that can expose bias in the most common interaction between police and the public: traffic stops.
The news organizations’ analysis of documented traffic stops statewide between 2014 and 2020 revealed that in 28% of stops — more than 1 in 4 — involving male drivers with Hispanic last names, police identified the driver as white on their citations.
The analysis found that identifying likely Hispanic drivers as white can obscure state and local data used to monitor racial profiling.
As written, police citations indicated that Hispanic men made up 14% of traffic stops of male Massachusetts residents, already more than their 11% share of the state’s adult male population. The USA TODAY Network analysis identified thousands of drivers marked as white whose last name indicates they likely are Hispanic. If those drivers had been identified as Hispanic, 19% of those stopped would have been Hispanic men, nearly double their share of the male population.
At the local police department level, some agencies showed a wider difference than others.
Holyoke provides a stark example. There, police data indicates that about a quarter of stops of the city’s adult male residents were of Hispanic men. If those with Hispanic last names had been identified as Hispanic instead of white, their share of stops would have risen threefold to nearly three-quarters.
Traffic stops are a major pipeline into the Massachusetts criminal system, where the rate of incarceration of Hispanics is four times that of whites — the greatest disparity in the nation, according to the Sentencing Project. Unlicensed driving, driving with a suspended license and driving without auto insurance have been the top three criminal charges across the state each year since 2018, according to Trial Court data.
Experts in criminal defense say what the news organizations found means it is harder for drivers to challenge charges they allege stemmed from discriminatory stops in court.
“The fact that criminal traffic enforcement is the most common type of law enforcement action in our state highlights how impactful it is for police to be systematically miscounting the race or ethnicity of the drivers who they are pulling over,” said Joshua Raisler Cohn, a public defense attorney who has researched racial profiling litigation in the state.
When Massachusetts police issue a traffic ticket there are six options for filling in the race box in an attempt to track racial and ethnic profiling. While Hispanic is widely considered an ethnicity, not a race, it is the option intended for them.
Police chiefs were reluctant to fault officers for the patterns identified by the USA TODAY Network.
“I don’t know how you discern, from officer to officer, what the motivation was,” said Mark K. Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
Leahy and other law enforcement leaders argued that in an increasingly diverse society, drivers should self-report demographic information to the state when they get their driver’s license. Requiring police to mark their perception of a driver’s race with little to no training, they say, is a recipe for mistakes and inaccurate data.
Some experts questioned whether poor training and genuine mistakes were wholly to blame.
“Based on what I’ve seen and what I know, I don’t think it’s possible that this is not a deliberate misidentification of people,” said Luis Jiménez, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston who specializes in Hispanic and Latino politics.
The Executive Office of Public Safety & Security, which oversees Massachusetts law enforcement, declined to comment on the USA TODAY Network findings that men with Hispanic surnames were routinely labeled as non-Hispanic white on citations.
Misidentification appears to affect thousands of stops
The news organizations identified more than 51,000 stops of men with Hispanic surnames between 2014 and 2020 when police marked the driver as white on traffic citations — a discovery possible only because the Registry of Motor Vehicles mistakenly released drivers’ surnames in response to a public records request.
The analysis considered a surname Hispanic if at least 80% of people with the same name identified as Hispanic in the U.S. Census, and it focused on men because traditional marriage conventions make men most likely to retain their parents' name.
That allowed reporters to pinpoint dozens of communities where mislabeling appears to be routine.
In Bourne, the gateway to Cape Cod, police marked men with Hispanic surnames as white in 65% of stops.
In South Hadley, a woodsy town in Western Massachusetts, police recorded the driver as white in 80% of those stops.
And in Barnstable, home to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport, the rate was 68%.
“This absolutely needs to change,” said Adriana Paz, an Afro-Latina community advocate in Lynn. “We're literally taking away the voice of those who have been discriminated against because they cannot tell their story without the data. They are not believed without that data, but they can't get the data … to back it up.”
When police officers write a citation, they can choose from the six “race” options set by the state: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern or American Indian/Alaska Native. Hispanic is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a person whose ancestry is Spanish-speaking cultures of Mexico, Central and South America, Puerto Rico or the Caribbean.
“The whole world is not like just Black or white,” said Brian Kyes, former police chief in Chelsea, Massachusetts, and now a U.S. Marshal. “You're just kind of guessing, for lack of a better term.”
‘He didn’t treat me like a white person’
Noel Gabriel’s work as a painter, and now as the owner of a painting company, requires him to drive around the state, North Shore to South Shore, often carrying drop cloths, ladders, brushes, rollers, primer and paint.
Since he moved here from Guatemala in 2006, he has been pulled over and cited by Massachusetts police at least nine times, according to court records.
“The worst was in Peabody,” Gabriel said in an interview in May during which he spoke in English and Spanish.
Court records confirm that Gabriel has been stopped at least three times — twice by the same officer — in Peabody, a largely white bedroom community north of Boston.
The first happened on June 3, 2013. The officer who made the stop, Michael Nary, reported patrolling Lake Street in Peabody around 5 p.m. when he saw a green 1996 Toyota Corolla missing an inspection sticker.
During the traffic stop, the officer confirmed Gabriel owned the car, but because he didn’t have full legal immigration status in Massachusetts, he did not have a driver’s license. In his report, Nary noted that Gabriel, then 26, had been charged with unlicensed driving before.
Police training materials note that officers have discretion about whether to arrest a person for unlicensed driving, issue them a summons to appear in court or give them a written or verbal warning. Gabriel was arrested, searched, handcuffed and taken to the police station for booking.
Records indicate Gabriel renewed his inspection sticker later that month.
A little more than a year later, at around 6 p.m., Nary again stopped Gabriel on Lake Street in Peabody. His inspection sticker had expired the month before, according to the officer. Again, Nary arrested, searched and handcuffed Gabriel for unlicensed driving before taking him to the police station.
A decade later, the now 36-year-old remembers Nary well. Gabriel said the officer grew increasingly rude as he struggled to communicate in English, which he was still learning.
Temperatures soared into the 90s on the day Nary stopped Gabriel for the second time, according to weather reports, and he remembered sweltering, handcuffed, in the back of the officer’s cruiser.
Gabriel recalled asking the officer to turn on the air conditioning. Nary, he said, cracked the window about an inch instead.
Gabriel also remembered the more than $1,000 in fines due after the two encounters with law enforcement. The total amounted to more than two weeks’ pay, he said.
Like Noriega, Gabriel said he didn’t notice that after the two stops the officer recorded his race as white on the traffic citations, even though he had given the officer his identification card from the Guatemalan consulate.
“He didn’t treat me like a white person,” Gabriel said in Spanish. “He treated me like a Hispanic immigrant, and it doesn’t surprise me that he treated me that way.”
Nary, who has since retired, declined to be interviewed when a reporter reached him by phone.
“Obviously there was a mistake made (in identifying Gabriel as white), so that’s concerning,” Peabody Police Chief Thomas M. Griffin said.
He said he would speak with his officers about the USA TODAY Network review, which found Peabody officers marked the driver white in 42% of stops of men with Hispanic names.
“It should be something we’re getting right 95% of the time,” he said. “We’re going to do some roll call training on exactly what is expected.”
Massachusetts citation data can be misleading
Saugus is a quiet, close-knit suburb cleaved by Route 1, a congested highway known for its kitschy landmarks. It's one of nearly 60 cities and towns in the state where police marked the majority of men with Hispanic surnames as white on traffic tickets.
For many Lynn residents, Saugus streets are the quickest route to the rest of the state — and work.
Lopez was the most common surname among men stopped by Saugus police from January 2014 to July 2020. In the U.S. Census, just under 5% of Americans with the last name Lopez identified themselves as white.
But Saugus police identified more than 60% of men named Lopez as white in traffic stops over the six-year period evaluated by the USA TODAY Network.
Lopez, Mendez, Rodriguez, and more — overall, 8 in 10 of the most common surnames of men stopped by Saugus police were Hispanic. They identified most of those drivers as white on citations, too.
Reporters traced 87 citations of men with Hispanic surnames for unlicensed driving to their resulting criminal cases in Lynn District Court. In more than half of those cases the driver, who was marked white by police on the citation, requested a Spanish interpreter in court.
Some drivers Saugus police marked as white, court records show, had given the officers passports and licenses from Central and South American countries, something reporters also found in records of stops by other departments.
Sometimes, Massachusetts police identified the same driver’s ethnicity as “Hispanic” in internal police reports that offer spots to mark race and ethnicity but as white on the traffic citations used in court proceedings and racial profiling research, which have only a race field.
The practice of labeling drivers who likely are Hispanic as white is not universal among Massachusetts police. Data analyzed by the USA TODAY Network suggests variation even among officers within the same department.
That was true in Saugus.
One Saugus officer made 101 stops involving men with Hispanic last names, all but two of whom he logged as “white.” His tickets suggest he rarely cited Hispanic men when in fact Hispanic men likely made up about a third of his stops. A colleague who made 18 stops of men with Hispanic surnames provides a study in contrast. That officer identified half of the men as white.
Saugus Police Chief Michael Ricciardelli did not respond to repeated email and phone requests for an interview to discuss the findings.
Massachusetts police not the first to identify Hispanic drivers as white
One of the first organizations to expose a pattern of misidentification on traffic tickets was Texas news station KXAN, which found in 2015 that Texas state troopers were recording the race of large numbers of people of color, most of them Hispanic, as white.
In 2021, ProPublica found that of the almost 80,000 tickets that the Louisiana State Police handed out in Jefferson Parish over nearly six years, not one was issued to a person labeled Hispanic, even though Hispanic people made up 18% of the parish’s population.
That same year, researchers studying data collected from the Florida Highway Patrol found that police in Miami-Dade County — where nearly 70% of people are Hispanic or Latino — issued fewer than 1% of their tickets to Hispanic drivers, forcing researchers to relabel drivers to complete their study.
Researchers and advocates say inaccuracies in demographic traffic stop data can mask evidence of potential profiling.
In June, researchers with Connecticut's anti-profiling program published an audit that found their research on traffic stop disparities from 2014 to 2021 was tainted because state troopers submitted at least 25,000 fake traffic tickets. More than 1 in 4 troopers across the state were implicated.
A detailed analysis of the tickets determined that troopers disproportionately marked the fake violators as white, which had a “substantive and statistically significant impact” on the anti-profiling program’s previously published analyses.
The Connecticut Chief State’s Attorney is investigating the scheme, which a 2018 state police probe of a handful of officers suggested was motivated by a desire to appear more productive, not to skew the numbers.
Nonetheless, Ken Barone, who heads the research team that audited the stops, said the impact on Connecticut’s anti-profiling program was significant.
He said the USA TODAY Network’s findings similarly diminish the integrity of Massachusetts’s traffic stop data by bringing into question any past analyses that compare the rate of traffic stops among racial groups.
The existing data, he said, is “sort of masking the disparity.”
Barone said the lack of an ethnicity field on the state’s citation is probably a major contributor to the patterns identified by this investigation.
Massachusetts has “essentially given them (the police) an automatic out,” he said.
Supreme Judicial Court: Racial profiling ‘persistent and pernicious problem’
The implications of widespread problems in traffic citation data are far-reaching.
In February 2022, the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security released a taxpayer-funded report intended to investigate racial disparities in traffic citations by Massachusetts police.
The only test of racial disparity mentioned in the state’s press release — called the Veil of Darkness test — compared the likelihood of non-white drivers getting stopped in daylight to those stopped after dark.
The test found nonwhite motorists were 36% less likely to be stopped in daylight than in darkness, according to the February 2022 press release, suggesting racial profiling wasn’t a concern. But there’s no indication the test accounted for the fact that police in departments across the state are labeling Hispanic drivers as white on traffic citations.
Matthew Ross, a national expert on the Veil of Darkness test, has conducted analyses of racial disparities in traffic stops for states including Connecticut and Rhode Island and produced peer-reviewed papers analyzing traffic stop data from New York, Michigan, Texas and Illinois.
Ross, an associate professor at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs and Department of Economics, said the USA TODAY Network’s findings “makes any statistical analysis less likely to find evidence of discrimination even if it exists.” He called that “deeply troubling.”
Staff at the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the agency that oversaw the study’s production, declined to comment.
The state’s summary of the report in its press release was at odds with the assessment of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justices, who called racial profiling in traffic stops a “persistent and pernicious problem” in a decision in September 2020.
In an earlier decision about profiling, 2008’s Commonwealth v. Lora, the court had ruled that defendants could argue to suppress evidence from a traffic stop using statistical analyses of citation data to show that officers had a pattern of stopping nonwhite motorists disproportionately.
In the 2020 decision, Commonwealth v. Long, the justices wrote that the Lora ruling had placed too much emphasis on demonstrating patterns of bias in stops through citation data given that the data – including the demographics of drivers given verbal warnings but not citations — is largely inaccessible in Massachusetts.
“In practice, providing statistical evidence sufficient to raise a reasonable inference that a motor vehicle stop was racially motivated, given the limitations of available police data, has proved infeasible for defendants,” the Long decision said.
Justices laid the problem at the feet of the Legislature, and they recommended passage of a proposal then before the state Senate to require police to collect data on all traffic stops. That proposal failed a couple of months later.
“This type of data collection would help protect drivers from racially discriminatory traffic stops, and also would protect police officers who do not engage in such discriminatory stops," justices wrote.
The court added that even incomplete traffic stop data would be “potentially the strongest tool” defendants had to claim that race played an unconstitutional role in a stop.
“We recognize that statistical evidence, if available, has unique advantages for reaching the thorny question of intent,” the justices wrote, “particularly when implicit bias is at issue.”
In a bulletin posted less than two weeks after the court issued the Long decision, Massachusetts police consultant and former prosecutor John Scheft warned law enforcement that the case would make it easier for defense attorneys to allege racial profiling in court.
About halfway through the nine-page bulletin, Scheft acknowledged officers might be tempted to lie about their perception of drivers’ race on traffic citations to avoid “being labeled as racist.”
“This,” Scheft wrote, “is the worst thing you can do.”
‘I don’t want to be worried’
The Evangelic Iglesia de Dios de la Profecía is nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood of Lynn, where front yards are dotted with kids' trikes and toys.
On a Friday evening last spring, the smell of backyard grill smoke drifted through the open doors of the church, where workers were renovating the first floor to accommodate a surge in parishioners.
On the ground floor, Rev. Eduardo Cáceres hurried toward the front of an expansive meeting room with a microphone as volunteers with the immigrant rights group Cosecha Massachusetts traversed rows of red vinyl chairs holding clipboards bearing sign-in sheets.
At 7 p.m., they would begin explaining how to apply for a Massachusetts driver’s license.
Cosecha Massachusetts hosted similar sessions across the state before the new law that allows undocumented people to get licenses took effect in July. That change followed two decades of advocacy by grassroots groups representing Latino residents in Massachusetts.
Roughly 30 people attended the event in Lynn. Volunteers said others have drawn as many as 250.
Gabriel, the man twice arrested by the same Peabody police officer for unlicensed driving a decade ago, sat toward the front. As a business owner and father of four, Gabriel said he can’t wait to get a driver’s license.
“I don’t want to be worried,” he said. “I want to be free, you know?”
Last year, Gabriel was stopped for a third time in Peabody, by a different officer. Much about the stop was the same: He was again arrested, searched, handcuffed and charged with unlicensed driving.
This time, though, the officer marked him as Hispanic.
Jeannette Hinkle is a Cape Cod Times staff writer, Brad Petrishen is a Worcester Telegram & Gazette staff writer, Data reporters Dan Keemahill and Dian Zhang did the analysis for USA TODAY. Carlie Procell with USA TODAY produced the graphics and Kinga Borondy, also a Worcester Telegram & Gazette staff writer, contributed to this report.
The Cape Cod Times, Worcester Telegram & Gazette and USA TODAY are providing this coverage for free as a public service. Please take a moment to support local journalism by subscribing to the Times,Worcester Telegram & Gazette, USA TODAY.