by Trevor Schakohl
Leaders in multiple states and cities are embracing efforts to bar police from pulling drivers over for certain less-severe traffic violations, a move that some experts believe endangers public safety.
Lawmakers in Washington state are pushing a plan that would forbid police traffic stops conducted to address some lower-level traffic lawbreaking, and Oregon has already established a similar policy, while San Francisco is considering a city-wide plan of this kind after Los Angeles and Minneapolis instituted their own. Such restrictions could effectively impede enforcement against more serious offenses and put innocent civilians at risk, according to experts who spoke to the Daily Caller News Foundation.
Heritage Foundation legal fellow Zack Smith said measures of this kind are “par for the course” in an ongoing “war on police officers across the county, basically handcuffing them, not allowing them to do their jobs.”
“I think many that support these bills would say that these types of supposedly minor violations are disproportionately used as pretext to stop black or other minority members of their communities,” Smith told the DCNF. “But what officers find is that when they’re not allowed to enforce laws that are on the books, it essentially leads to an increase in under-policing in many of these communities.”
More than 20 Democratic Washington State House members are sponsoring a bill that would prohibit police officers from stopping drivers primarily for reasons including parking and nonmoving equipment violations, some misdemeanor warrants or equipment failure that would not immediately and seriously endanger roadway safety. “Research shows that prioritizing safety stops reduces traffic crash and injury outcomes and reduces racial disparities in traffic stops,” H.B. 1513’s preliminary text says.
Washington State passed a law in May 2021 requiring police to have probable cause that a person committed a violent or sexual offense, escaped from custody or violated electronic monitoring rules or have reasonable suspicion that they drove illegally while intoxicated in order to engage them in a vehicular pursuit. A subsequent state law enacted in March 2022 clarified that officers could use physical force when necessary to halt someone fleeing a temporary “Terry stop.”
“Studies have shown that low-risk traffic stops are ‘not an effective strategy at reducing crime,’” H.B. 1513 co-sponsor and state Rep. Chipalo Street said to the DCNF. “Data from Washington shows that contraband is found in no more than 0.3% of traffic stops. Officers have a finite amount of time and trying to fight crime through traffic stops is an incredibly inefficient use of these resources.”
The bill has undergone law enforcement-backed changes since its original introduction last year and some law enforcement community members support it, though “no law enforcement agency” has publicly done so, Street told the DCNF Wednesday. Republican Washington state Rep. Carolyn Eslick said she opposes the measure, adding, “We need to give our officers more tools, not take them away.”
Oregon enacted a new law in March 2022 that included a provision banning police officers from initiating traffic stops due to one broken headlight, taillight, brake light or registration plate light. A different section of the law featured language “recognizing that systemic racism exists within this state and within the criminal justice system, and that culturally specific organizations and culturally responsive services must be expanded to address those disparities.”
“I reject the idea we have a systemically racist justice system. I reject the idea policing is inherently racist,” Smith told the DCNF, pointing out that the five officers charged with murdering Tyre Nichols are black and saying no evidence implicates racism in that case. “The best thing communities can do if they are concerned about racism and that sort of thing is treat everyone equal. Be sure that the law is being thoroughly enforced.”
The San Francisco Police Commission voted in early January to prohibit officers from conducting traffic stops solely for people driving with no front license plate, failing to display registration tags, driving with one non-functioning brake light and failing to signal continuously for 100 feet before a turn, among some other lower-level rules, according to Axios. The proposed reform, which must pass through police union labor negotiations, is a reduced version of a plan that would have prevented traffic stops for illegal U-turns and unsafe lane changes as well, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
“We look forward to working with the San Francisco Police Commission, and the Department of Police Accountability to review the Department and community key stakeholder recommendations including learning from emerging and established best practices throughout the country on traffic stops,” a San Francisco Police Department representative told the DCNF. “It is critical to understand the impacts of bias and racial disparities and to develop policies and practices to mitigate and eliminate them in policing.”
Similar proposals put forward at the city level can serve as an affront to state law, Smith said.
“That is very troubling, and the city is basically, through their policy choice, choosing to nullify duly-enacted law,” he told the DCNF.
Los Angeles, California’s largest city, has already implemented a traffic stop-limiting measure. In March 2022, The Los Angeles Police Commission enacted a ban on officers making pre-textual stops without “articulable information… regarding a serious crime,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
“The idea that you only enforce against specific dangerous driving incidents is undermined by the insight that people who drive unsafely in one context are likely to drive unsafely in lots of other contexts as well,” Manhattan Institute fellow Charles Lehman told the DCNF. “The point of targeting minor traffic offenses is that they can lead to major traffic offenses, which again lead to death, and death on a scale much greater than the scale of those people who get pulled over by cops in traffic stops and then get shot.”
Law enforcement authorities and politicians of both parties condemned the January police beating and death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, which occurred after a traffic stop. Police claimed Nichols was pulled over for “reckless driving,” and he ran from the scene of the initial stop before being beaten at another location when officers caught him, police footage shows.
“I think this is an example of policymaking… being done by anecdote rather than reason.” Lehman said of measures to stop police from making traffic stops for some violations. “In almost no other area do progressives say, ‘We take high-salience, low-frequency horror stories and use them as a basis for policymaking.’”
A Minneapolis Police Department policy announced in August 2021 orders its officers not to initiate traffic stops solely due to expired vehicle registration tabs, inoperable license plate lights or an item dangling from the rearview mirror that does not impair safe driving. This policy came the year after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in May 2020, spurring nationwide anti-racism and police brutality protests and riots that resulted in millions of dollars in damage as well as the emergence of the “defund the police” movement.
The Los Angeles Police Department did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment, while the Minneapolis Police Department referred to its policy and procedure manual.
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Trevor Schakohl is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation.
Photo “Police Officer on a Motorcycle” by Brett Sayles.