Police and district attorneys don’t want to give up harmful traffic stops, opponents to traffic stop reforms

Robert J Hansen

California Highway Patrol vehicle at the State Capitol June, 2021.Photo by(Photo by Robert J Hansen)

California is moving a bill through the legislature that would prohibit police from initiating low-level traffic stops unless there is a separate, independent reason. 

A policy that I began suggesting two years ago.

Traffic stops are the most common interaction between police and civilians and are a primary source of racial and economic injustice according to Jordan Blair Woods, a law professor at the University of Arkansas.

“Traffic enforcement is thus a common gateway for funneling over-policed and marginalized communities into the criminal justice system,” Woods said in 2021.

SB 50 would limit law enforcement’s ability to use minor, non-safety-related traffic infractions to conduct, what are often, racially-biased, pretextual stops. It will also provide technical clarification to ensure that cities and counties in California have sufficient flexibility to explore non-law enforcement approaches to traffic safety.

About 3 percent of traffic stops result in an arrest according to a 2021 Center for Policing Equity (CPE) study.

A safety-first approach to traffic enforcement would also remediate racial disparities and reduce interactions between civilians and law enforcement.

Research shows that pretext stops do not significantly benefit public safety, yet use valuable resources that could be directed to more effective public safety approaches.

A 2022 study by Catalyst California and ACLU SoCal found that instead of addressing community concerns about serious crime, Sheriff's deputies in Los Angeles and Riverside counties spent nearly 9 out of every 10 hours on stops initiated by officers rather than responding to calls for help.

Not surprisingly, the only opposition to the policy is from almost every law enforcement agency, union and district attorney in California. If SB 50 does not become law, it will be because the law enforcement community refuses to adopt the reforms lawmakers are creating.

“Most importantly, this bill's prohibition on detaining drivers for low-level infractions deprives peace officers of a very effective investigative tool that is often used by law enforcement to gather information needed in an ongoing criminal investigation, apprehend a suspect who is wanted for having committed an unrelated criminal violation or to investigate an unrelated offense,” according to the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA).

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides in part that "In When v. United States (1996) the Supreme Court held that "the temporary detention of a motorist upon probable cause to believe that he has violated the traffic laws does not violate the Fourth Amendment's protection from unreasonable seizures.

The When decision led to the widespread use of "pretext stops,” a traffic stop made as a pretext to stop a vehicle to investigate other possible crimes.

Many argue that pretext stops are a driver of racial bias in law enforcement with others asserting that they subvert the spirit of the Fourth Amendment by giving officers carte blanche to stop a vehicle.

Sacramento police cruisers in 2022.Photo by(Robert J Hansen)

The CDAA wants to continue violating Californian’s constitutional rights to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“We have seen far too many times how traffic stops can rapidly escalate and turn deadly,” Senator Steven Bradford said. “In this day and age, there’s no reason why Californians should be stopped and potentially subjected to brutality or dehumanizing because of an expired license plate.”

This legislation will reduce the potential for more harm to innocent members of the public, according to Bradford.

“SB 50 will especially help to protect Californians of color from unnecessary harm and ensure that law enforcement has more time to focus on community safety by preventing and solving serious crimes,” said Bradford. “The data backs up the need for this legislation. Black Californians are far more likely to be targeted by police.”

This legislation will also help to reduce the risk of harm to law enforcement officers by limiting the need for one of the most dangerous elements of their job, according to the bill.

By opposing the bill, the law enforcement community is effectively saying that it has no interest in focusing on more dangerous crimes or reducing the harm it causes minorities and disadvantaged communities. It even wants to keep a policy that makes the job more dangerous.

Berkeley policy analyst Darrell Owens thinks police dedicating their time to traffic enforcement is a waste of time and resources.

Owens spearheaded a proposal that would allow Berkeley to have unarmed officers enforce violations.

“I agree with decriminalizing low-level traffic violations,” Owens said.

Police departments try to avoid looking like they are racial profiling by making non-suspicious, low-level traffic stops according to Owens.

“Then make a suspicious vehicle stop,” Owens said. “Just be honest about it. If you think that person is running guns in the community then that’s what you stop them for. We don’t need you [law enforcement] to muddle up traffic safety with policing.”

It also doesn’t work according to Owens.

“People genuinely think that police are there to keep the roads safer with traffic violations. No, they’re not. They’re there to do warrantless policing.”

Recent Reforms 

Oakland instituted a policy in 2018 of no longer initiating low-level traffic stops. 

The number of traffic stops involving black individuals decreased by over eight thousand, representing a 43% drop, according to the bill. 

Berkeley proposed creating a Berkeley Department of Transportation which would take over responsibility for traffic enforcement from the police department.

In March 2022, the Los Angeles Police Department implemented a policy to limit the use, duration and scope of pretext stops conducted by its officers. The policy allows officers to make stops for minor equipment violations or other infractions only when the officer believes that such a violation significantly interferes with public safety but requires officers to state the public safety reason for such stops on their body-worn cameras.

Philadelphia became the first major city in the U.S. to ban low-level traffic stops in 2021.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced last August that the city attorney’s office will no longer pursue tickets against motorists except for “egregious driving behavior” or criminal activity.

Former Rochester police officer and author of Police Brutality Matters, Joseph Ested thinks traffic stops should only be made for reasons related to dangerous driving but it’s a lack of accountability that allows traffic stops to be misused.

“Routine traffic stops based on minor violations, pretextual stops and stops made for reasonable suspicion should be prohibited,” Ested said in 2021.

A narrowly defined set of violations, violent felony warrants and crime in progress should be permitted, according to Ested.

Unimpeded Mobility increases America’s economic upward mobility

American mobility has been impeded and restricted since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Carroll v United States (1925), which essentially stripped Americans of their Fourth Amendment rights.

The right to drive and the car gave Black Americans the ability to leave the south, women a chance to leave their homes and husbands and immigrants to find work anywhere throughout this county.

Carroll v United States established and set a precedent for the subsequent rulings despite repealing Prohibition in 1933 and fueled mass incarceration in the United States.

It’s not a coincidence that women, black people, immigrants and poor people are the same groups still fighting for equal treatment.

America’s labor force is roughly 63 percent of its total population which is about 160 million people, according to Census data. Almost 120 million drive alone to work every day, with another 14 million carpooling.

Public transportation will not provide the utility to double that five percent, let alone offer transportation for half the country anytime soon.

If there were any way to be more efficient than private vehicles, American ingenuity would have figured it out. It has thus far.

The American highway system was the successor to the transcontinental railroad and the country’s primary mode of personal travel. It has provided personal mobility to every citizen and is responsible for creating the most productive economy in the world for over 120 years.

Now what happens when you can’t afford to pay a low-level traffic ticket? Most places in the U.S. will pile on additional fees and interest charges, suspend your driver’s license or even issue a bench warrant for your arrest, over a traffic stop.

Fees are a hidden, regressive tax that harshly punish hard-working families living paycheck to paycheck, according to the ACLU.

This is just one of the ways that fees in the justice system trap far too many people in a vicious cycle of debt and punishment. 

Fines are devastating to families and entire communities and are disproportionately assessed against minorities and disadvantaged communities.

This system of traffic fines takes money directly out of the pockets of families who are least able to afford them, locking many individuals in a cycle of economic instability.

Improving American economic stability, reducing racial tensions and disparities, saving the lives of drivers and police officers and honoring constitutional protections are all being opposed by California’s law enforcement officials and district attorneys as long as they oppose SB 50 becoming law.

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Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Focused on holding elected officials, police and the courts accountable to the people throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento County, CA

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