When Philadelphia’s mayor signs landmark legislation this week, the city will become the first major US city to prohibit police from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations – stops, that studies show disproportionately target Black drivers.
According to the office of Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who authored the bill, the Driving Equality Bill, passed 14-2 by the city council on October 14, categorizes certain motor vehicle code violations as “primary violations,” which allow officers to pull people over in the name of public safety, and “secondary violations,” which do not meet the criteria for a lawful traffic stop. The bill will go into effect 120 days after Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney signs it into law, which his office says he plans to do.
While Philadelphia is the most populous city to outlaw such traffic stops, some local and state governments have followed suit.
Ramsey County, Minnesota, announced in September that prosecutors would no longer pursue cases against people who were unfairly targeted and detained during non-public safety stops.
Prosecutors say former St. Anthony Police Department officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile seven times during a traffic stop in 2016 over a broken tail light, prompting the new policy. As part of his 2022 budget proposal, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey announced in August that the city’s police officers will no longer conduct pretextual traffic stops for minor offenses. According to a city news release, officers are prohibited from making pretextual stops for “expired tabs, an item dangling from a mirror, or an expired license.”
Within three months of the bill’s introduction in March, Virginia became the first state to prohibit these stops. Law enforcement officers may not lawfully stop motorists who are driving without a light illuminating a license plate, without brake lights or a high mount stop light, or with certain sun-shading materials or tinting films, according to the legislation.
According to Dennis Jay Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, there are “risks in both directions” in allowing police to make minor traffic stops and prohibiting them entirely.
According to Kenney, Philadelphia has decided that pretextual stops are disruptive, and the risk to the relationship between the police and the community “is greater than the likely payoff of occasionally getting a bad guy.”
The bill was influenced by the creation of the Bailey pilot program, which was created as a result of the 2011 settlement agreement in Bailey v. City of Philadelphia, which requires the police department to collect and store data on all stop-and-frisks in an electronic database. The lawsuit claimed that police officers illegally stopped, frisked, and detained thousands of people in Philadelphia.
According to the Philadelphia police department, low-level offenses such as registration plate and bumper issues will now be classified as secondary offenses, which prohibit officers from conducting traffic stops unless there is an additional high-level safety violation.
The bill is also part of a package that includes his companion bill, which requires a public, searchable database of traffic stops to be published monthly. The police department will be required to keep digital records of which officers conduct traffic stops, who was stopped, why they were stopped, and other data that will be stored in a database.
The new legislation makes no changes to the motor vehicle code, which drivers are legally required to follow, but those who commit minor infractions now only receive a warning or citation in the mail.
According to Weisman, the bill only removes the enforcement mechanism of a traffic stop. It specifies seven secondary violations that are grounds for a traffic stop, including bumper issues, minor obstructions, broken lights, and a license plate that is not visible or clearly displayed. Minor infractions such as broken taillights, the odor of marijuana, improperly displayed registration stickers, or items hanging from a car’s rearview mirror have been cited as justifications for racially motivated traffic stops.
According to data from the Defender Association of Philadelphia, black drivers accounted for 72 percent of the nearly 310,000 traffic stops conducted by police officers between October 2018 and September 2019. According to the data, Black drivers account for 67 percent of stops this year, while White drivers account for only 12 percent.