America’s Traffic Laws Give Police Way Too Much Power

We’ll never know what Philando Castile was feeling when the police lights first flashed across his rearview mirror on a balmy night in the summer of 2016. But we can be reasonably certain of what he wasn’t feeling: surprise. The traffic stop—ostensibly for a broken tail light—that precipitated his tragic death, and captured the nation’s attention, was nothing out of the ordinary for Castile. In fact, it was the 46th time that he had been stopped. This figure is not surprising, but it’s nothing unusual.

This is how traffic laws were designed. Traffic laws cover so many offenses, that a driver cannot even manage to get behind the wheel for a few seconds without getting in trouble. A simple offense like not illuminating your license plate or hanging air freshener out of the rear-view mirror can result in you being pulled over. It’s only a matter a time before any driver falls prey to the minefield of traffic infractions that awaits them every time they fire up the engine.

Practically, police have almost unbounded authority to pull over anyone they wish, at any hour. And one way that they put this discretion to use is by engaging in what’s known as pretextual traffic stops. These are when police have a hunch that a driver has committed a crime (or perhaps the driver just looks “suspicious”), but not enough evidence to stop and interrogate them about it. Police pull the driver in for a small traffic offense and instead arrest her. Once the motorist is stopped, officers can start questioning her about the non-traffic crime that they’re really interested in. Their true motivation is not hidden behind the traffic stop.

Philando castile experienced exactly this. As dispatch audio recordings would later reveal, the officer believed that Castile’s “wide-set nose” fit the description of someone who had committed a robbery. As the rest of the world found out, Castile was not robbed. Castile was not shot by his officer.

So, what’s wrong with pretextual stops? For starters, they don’t make us safer. Studies have proven that pretext stops do not increase crime. The same research shows that officers who allow their intuitions to guide them and any other unchecked instincts are more likely to get influenced by people of color. Racial inequalities in whom officers are pulled over can undermine trust and create the impression that the police use race to justify criminal activity.

Every year, there are around 20 million traffic stops. Many of these stop drivers for minor offenses. These stops could quickly become deadly for drivers such as Castile or Daunte Wright. The consequences of these stops need not prove fatal to cause lasting damage. Even minor traffic offenses could result in hefty fines. For those who are unable or unwilling to pay late fees, license suspensions and possible late fees. These stops can lead to humiliation, fear, or other unpleasant consequences for the innocent.

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It is now becoming a matter of concern for policymakers. Philadelphia was recently the first to adopt a comprehensive policy that would curb pretextual traffic stops. They deserve my appreciation. They owe their constituents the obligation to steer taxpayer dollars away form the corrupt regime of pretext stops, and to invest this money in programs to keep officers and communities secure.

As a San Francisco Police Commissioner, this Wednesday I brought a new regulation that will do exactly what we need in the city. If enacted into law, here’s what the new regulation will do.

It also prohibits you from stopping someone for low-level traffic offences, such as failing to properly illuminate your plate. If you can’t stop someone for this type of offense, you can’t leverage it as a pretext for further investigation. It is still possible for officers to make traffic stops for serious threats to public safety. Officers still have the right of arrest drunk drivers or drag-racers. Officers can still enforce violations at the lowest level if necessary. All they need to do is take down the driver’s license plate number and send them a ticket in the mail.

It also limits consent searches. Prohibiting officers from asking for consent to search cars once they’ve pulled the driver over—except under certain narrow circumstances—will reduce the incentive to make pretextual stops in the first place, as well as the temptation to go searching for a needle in a haystack.

The final benefit is that it will increase data collection. The numbers will tell the tale and policy makers and the public are able to draw evidence-based conclusions regarding police traffic enforcement.

My hope is that, after soliciting and incorporating the public’s input, the Police Commission will be able to vote on a final version of the regulation this fall.

Now here’s why—regardless of your politics or feelings about police reform—you should be all-in for limiting pretext stops.

For starters, the data out of major metropolitan areas like Nashville show that pretext stops are not making anyone safer and don’t have any impact on crime rates. However, these stops put officers in potentially hazardous situations. While most traffic stops will be routine, it’s impossible to know when a driver pulled over for a broken taillight will be a criminal with a murder warrant who doesn’t want to be taken in.

The substantial amount of money and officer time spent carrying out these ineffectual stops could all be redirected to strategies proven to stop and prevent crime — including greater responsiveness to emergency calls.

Commentators mistakenly assume there’s a tradeoff between public safety and police reform. One prime example is the reduction in pretext stops. It doesn’t matter whether you’re chiefly concerned with officer safety, or better police response times, or racial disparities in the criminal justice system: everyone comes out a winner when pretext stops are phased out. Rarely does a policy proposal bring together so many diverse stakeholder groups that they can all benefit.

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