Steven Bradford and Cristine DeBerry: It’s time to end police stops for petty traffic violations

Tyre Nichols was pulled over for a traffic violation.

So too was Philando Castile, who was pulled over for a broken taillight.

Daunte Wright was pulled over for having expired tags and an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror.

And Dijon Kizzee was pulled over for swerving while riding his bike.

All of these men were Black. All were pulled over for traffic violations. All were killed by police.

Across the country, police and prosecutors are joining a call that justice reform activists have long issued: to end the unsafe and racially discriminatory practice of using minor violations as an excuse to detain and interrogate motorists, cyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians.

It’s time to end police stops for driving, biking or walking while Black.

In so-called “pretextual stops,” police use petty violations such as expired registration and tinted windows as a pretext for initiating a stop to pursue what studies show amount to racially biased fishing expeditions.  Researchers have repeatedly found that police search Black and Latino people far more often than Whites during traffic stops, even though Whites who are stopped are more often found to have contraband. Police are also significantly more likely to use force against Black people during these stops.

In January, a comprehensive analysis found that California law enforcement officers searched Black people at 2.2 times the rate of White people, with Black teenagers ages 15-17 being searched at nearly six times the rate of White teenagers. Being pulled over by the police causes fear, humiliation and distrust in law enforcement and the criminal legal system more broadly. It can also lead to deadly consequences, all without providing any added safety benefit.

A group of judges and academics appointed by the governor concluded that pretext stops do not improve public safety; instead, they use valuable resources that could be redirected to more effective public safety approaches. In effect, reprioritizing traffic stops to focus on safety-related violations, like speeding and driving while impaired, rather than pretextual violations, can reduce motor vehicle injuries and racial disparities while bolstering public safety by freeing up policing resources to respond to serious violent crimes including homicides and sexual assaults.

For these reasons, we have developed and introduced Senate Bill 50, state legislation that will prohibit officers from stopping people for minor violations if there is no other legal, safety-related justification for the stop.

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The bill also recognizes that armed police officers — with the authority to search, arrest and use deadly force — may not be the best people to enforce traffic laws. In 2020, the city of Berkeley announced plans to move traffic enforcement away from armed law enforcement and into a new civilian traffic enforcement unit. However, some city attorneys have said that current law in California may not permit this move. SB 50 would clarify that Berkeley and other jurisdictions can authorize other government employees to enforce traffic laws.

We must enforce traffic laws, but without the danger and damage to public trust inherent in pretextual stops. We have a duty and obligation to protect the constitutional rights of the public, and to increase the fairness of our justice system.

To improve safety and justice throughout the state, we urge the Legislature to pass SB 50 to separate traffic enforcement from criminal investigations. Doing so will help rebuild trust and cooperation with affected communities, thereby facilitating crime prevention and addressing the ongoing problem of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Steven Bradford represents the 35th District, which encompasses parts of Los Angeles County, in the California state Senate. Cristine DeBerry is the founder and executive Director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California.

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