Do Traffic Stops Do More Harm Than Good?

By Richard Dahl on April 22, 2021 | Last updated on February 06, 2023

The recent killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, by a suburban Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer started as a routine traffic stop. So did the killing of another Black man, Philando Castile, five years earlier in another Minnesota suburb, Falcon Heights. Meanwhile, a high-profile lawsuit in Virginia has been filed by a Black U.S. Army officer, 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who charges that two policemen violated his constitutional rights during a traffic stop where they pointed guns at him, pepper sprayed him, and pushed him to the ground. The common thread here, of course, is traffic stops. But, more than that, the thread is traffic stops of a particular nature: those that are arguably unnecessary. Wright's car had expired registration tabs; Castile's car had a broken taillight; Lazario's recently purchased car was missing license plates (but did have a cardboard temporary plate from the dealer taped inside the rear window).

'Pretextual' Traffic Stops

A debate has emerged about whether stops of this kind should even happen. Some people argue that police use “pretextual" stops based on flimsy or nonexistent reasons in hopes of ensnaring drivers for serious offenses like drug possession. They argue that this is a practice that has been particularly used to target Black drivers and occupants. In predominantly white Minneapolis, for instance, 78% of drivers who were stopped by police over a one-year period were Black or East African, compared with 12% who were white. Supporters of the practice argue, however, that it is an effective crime-fighting tool. Certainly, pretextual stops have led to arrests of people who deserve it, including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was stopped for driving without a license tag. Meanwhile, it's important to point out that the risks run in both directions. In February, New Mexico State Police officer Darian Jarrott was shot and killed by a motorist he'd stopped because the pickup's windows were darkly tinted.

'Hit Rates' Are Low

But University of Minnesota law professor Maria Ponomorenko told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that pretextual stops don't do much to curb serious crime. “The overwhelming evidence is it doesn't work," she said. “The overall hit rates are incredibly low." In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Whren v. United States, that pretextual stops are constitutional as long as police officers identify an actual violation of traffic law no matter what their motivation was in making the stop. However, states can enact their own statutes to limit the latitude police have in making stops, and some are doing so. In late 2019, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that police could no longer pull someone over for a minor infraction like a failure to signal or broken taillight and then ask unrelated questions such as asking for consent to search the car. On March 1, a Virginia law went into effect prohibiting police from making traffic stops if they smell marijuana or for a number of minor infractions.

Greater Use of Technology?

Sarah A. Seo, a Columbia Law School professor, wrote in the New York Times that steps like those taken in Oregon and Virginia make sense. She argues that we need to decrease our reliance on human enforcement. In part, she says, technology can do the job. Automated speed cameras and red-light cameras have proven effective in issuing automatic citations that offenders receive in the mail. Similar technology can be used for expired licenses and registration, she says. Many police departments already have automatic license-plate readers, and they can be used to send notices by mail that a license or registration has expired or is about to. Another approach, launched by the city of Berkeley, California, last summer, is to transfer traffic enforcement and accident duties to unarmed civilian traffic agents. That plan is not yet in effect, however.

A Checklist if You Are Stopped

Meanwhile, if you are pulled over by police, there are several things to keep in mind, including:
  • Try to remain calm.
  • Stop your car as quickly as possible in a safe place.
  • Turn off the car, open the window part way, and place your hands on the steering wheel.
  • Upon request, show the officer your driver's license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance.
  • Keep your hands in plain sight and don't make any sudden moves.
Finally, if you are arrested, remain silent and ask for a lawyer immediately. The police must allow you to make a local phone call. If you call a lawyer, the police cannot listen to the call.

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