- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Racial justice warriors have a new tactic in their decades-old quest to end routine police traffic stops, and they hope it attracts conservatives to their cause.

The objection to traffic stops is not about skin color but about government intrusion, they now say.

Randy Petersen, a former police officer who is a senior researcher for Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice advocacy group, said curbing government power will be a winning argument with conservatives.

“If you have statutes on the books that are there for purely revenue generation or as a mechanism to circumvent the Fourth Amendment, that is the argument you make to conservatives,” he said. “Where you lose conservatives is when you claim that policing is racist, but arguing against government overreach is something everyone can get behind.”

Liberal lawmakers and civil rights groups have long decried the practice of pulling over motorists for minor traffic violations, a practice known as a pretext stop.

They say the tactic unfairly targets minorities, and studies back up some claims of racial bias in police traffic stops.

Police across the country deny any racial bias in traffic stops. They say pretext stops are valuable to solve and prevent crime.

Calls for increased scrutiny of policing, including traffic stop policies, ramped up last year as part of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

States and localities have been slow to embrace no-stop policing, which faces fierce opposition from police unions and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Now advocates are trying to reframe the narrative as a shield against the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

A 1996 unanimous Supreme Court decision declared pretext stops constitutional as long as police identify a traffic violation, regardless of motivation.

States and municipalities, however, can limit the number of reasons police can stop motorists and how far they can go in searching a vehicle.

The movement to abolish pretext stops is gaining steam at the local level, albeit slowly.

In Virginia, a bill that bars police from stopping drivers for petty offenses — including tinted windows, faulty brake lights, loud mufflers and objects dangling from the rearview mirror — passed the General Assembly in October, but Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, refused to sign it.

The city of Tacoma, Washington, said it will start collecting data to identify racial disparities in traffic stops, the first step toward proposed legislation.

The City Council of Berkeley, California, approved a measure to transfer traffic stops from police to unarmed civilians who will be part of the transportation department. But the city has run into snags, and the department may not be set up for another year.

Appeal to conservatives

After failing to gain widespread support, advocates of the movement to end pretext traffic stops are hoping to get conservatives on board.

Arlington Public Defender Brad Haywood, executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, said conservatives should help their agenda.

“I really wish that conservatives in America would take a long, hard look at this,” he said. “It speaks to their values as much as it speaks to anyone’s values. This is an issue we all ought to get behind.”

Some conservatives are embracing the movement.

Jerry Sanders, a Republican former mayor of San Diego and former police chief, wrote an op-ed last summer calling for an end to pretext traffic stops.

Others remain skeptical.

The measure to end pretext stops in Virginia passed the General Assembly without the support of a single Republican.

Republicans in Texas have spoken out against a similar bill in that state.

The issue, supporters say, is that people want to connect eliminating pretext stops with “defund police,” a far-left initiative to redirect police funds to social justice programs.

Republicans have widely condemned defunding the police, while Democrats have distanced themselves from it.

“Defunding and abolishing the police has become such a flashpoint that Democrats are infighting about it,” Mr. Haywood said.

Mr. Haywood said his group is trying to reach out to Republicans about government overreach during traffic stops.

But he has limited resources that he must use to target lawmakers who will support his cause.

“If we are going to spend the time lobbying legislators, it is going to be Democrats,” Mr. Haywood said. “None of the Republicans [in Virginia] would vote for the bill because of the hyperpartisan climate.”

Limiting police misconduct

Police across the country pull over drivers about 20 million times each year, according to a 2019 study by researchers at Stanford University. It is the most common interaction people typically have with law enforcement. In rare circumstances, some have ended in fatal shootings.

In 2017, former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the deadly shooting of unarmed Black man Walter Scott after pulling him over for a broken brake light.

Another unarmed Black man, Samuel DuBose, was fatally shot by an officer in Cincinnati in 2015 after he was stopped for a missing license plate. The officer was indicted on a murder charge, which was later dismissed with prejudice.

Stanford University researchers analyzed more than 100 million traffic stops across the country over nearly a decade. They concluded that Black drivers were searched 1½ to 2 times more than White drivers.

The study also concluded that Black drivers were stopped based on less evidence than White drivers, but White drivers were more likely to be found with drugs, guns or other contraband.

Most Black motorists were pulled over for petty traffic violations, including failure to signal, tinted windows or broken license plates.

“If you limit unnecessary interactions with police, you are going to limit the number of interactions that result in allegations of police misconduct or excessive force,” Mr. Haywood said.

Taking away tools

Law enforcement groups say that making routine traffic stops is a proactive way to take dangerous criminals off the streets. Such stops have helped solve homicides and robberies and have apprehended dangerous fugitives.

Perhaps the most famous example of a routine traffic stop solving a major crime was in 1995, when police in Oklahoma captured Timothy McVeigh, the bomber of a federal office building in Oklahoma City. Police pulled over McVeigh for a missing license plate.

Mr. Petersen said he has uncovered guns and drugs during a routine traffic stop but maintains that the expansive traffic code encourages “lazy policing.”

“You can stop 15 different cars in a half an hour and play bingo without respecting the Fourth Amendment,” he said.

Betsy Brantner Smith, an executive with the National Police Association, said reducing the number of reasons to pull over motorists handicaps police.

“They are taking away the tools that we have,” she said of the movement to abolish pretext stops. “That is one of the big ways law enforcement identifies terrorists.”

Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Corpus Christi, Texas; Philadelphia; Nashville, Tennessee; and elsewhere have implemented a strategy of increasing traffic stops to take fugitives off the streets.

The program, known as D-Dacts, reduced violent crime in those cities by 32% and lowered car crashes by 23% within three years, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Evesham, New Jersey, Police Department said it recorded a 35% reduction in car crashes and an 82% drop in burglaries after implementing the program.

Mr. Haywood said such initiatives run afoul of the Constitution.

“When you can do whatever you want whenever you want, of course you are going to find stuff,” he said. “But we have a Constitution, and people have a Fourth Amendment right.”

Other studies have found no connection between traffic stops and increased public safety.

A study by researchers at San Diego State University analyzed 260,000 traffic stops in the city in 2014 and 2015 and found that only 1.3% led to arrests.

“All these traffic laws on the books don’t do anything for public safety,” Mr. Petersen said. “Good police work is going to get done whether you make an otherwise innocuous traffic stop or not.”

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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