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New laws and agency policies limit traffic stops

Finding a happy medium isn’t going to be easy


Patrol officers are being discouraged or even forbidden to make stops for low-level traffic violations such as expired registration and faulty equipment, like burned-out taillights and cracked windshields.

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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Police1’s digital edition, “Guide to traffic enforcement.” Click here to download this free publication.

Across the country, law enforcement officers are making fewer traffic stops than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic. The reasons for this change have little to do with public health or fear of contagion.

Traffic stops for low-level violations such as speeding and expired vehicle registration have long been the most common type of police-citizen encounter. Within a few years of obtaining a driver’s license, most motorists have a story about the last time they were pulled over. The stories are generally not complimentary of the police, because nobody likes getting a ticket or even being detained briefly while the officer checks the status of their license. The stories have taken on a darker tone in the wake of high-profile incidents where a traffic stop resulted in one or more fatalities.

Police agencies are also experiencing the worst recruitment problem in U.S. history. Applications from would-be law enforcement officers are at a record low. The applicants are often less qualified than the police organizations would like, with lower academic achievement and chronic health issues that were less common in past applicant cohorts. The U.S. military, which recruits from a slightly younger population, has a similar problem. A 2020 study by the U.S. Department of Defense revealed that only 23% of American youth are qualified for military service.

Reduced police manpower means that services not directly devoted to answering calls for service and investigating major crimes are cut back, with the bodies in those divisions reassigned to patrol or investigations. Motorcycle and conventional motor patrols dedicated to traffic enforcement are being repurposed.

Patrol officers are being discouraged or even forbidden to make stops for low-level traffic violations such as expired registration and faulty equipment, like burned-out taillights and cracked windshields. Some prosecutors have announced they will not issue charges on cases initiated by traffic stops not directly associated with public safety.

At the heart of many of these initiatives is the so-called “pretext stop.” A pretext stop is one with a legitimate quantum of reasonable suspicion, but not the primary reason the officer wishes to investigate the vehicle or its driver. Reasonable articulable suspicion (RAS) is the minimum justification a law enforcement officer needs to stop and detain someone for investigation. A stop made on RAS can also be classified as a “Terry stop,” named for the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio.

An officer making a pretext stop observes erratic driving, a low-level moving violation such as failing to use a turn signal, or an equipment violation like having no license plate light. The officer’s primary motive is not the violation, but rather the officer’s suspicion that the driver is carrying or selling illegal drugs, participating in illegal gang activity, or violating probation or parole, among other reasons. The pretext stop allows the officer to interview the driver and his passengers and get a better look at what is inside the passenger compartment.

Pretext stops are entirely lawful, although controversial. In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Whren v. U.S. that officers may stop any vehicle when they have observed a traffic violation, even if their primary motive is not related to traffic enforcement. Law enforcement officers have long been dependent on spretext stop to investigate further and break major cases that had little to do with the larger issue.

  • In 1995, Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger stopped a vehicle that had no license plate. While speaking to the driver, Timothy McVeigh, Hanger noticed that McVeigh was carrying a firearm without a concealed weapons permit and arrested him. Just 90 minutes before, a Ryder rental truck driven by McVeigh had exploded outside the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. The FBI was able to notify the county jail where McVeigh was being out-processed to hold him to stand trial for the bombing. He was executed by lethal injection in 2001.
  • In 2006, Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Eddie Dutchover stopped a Cadillac Escalade with an expired temporary license plate. Inside, he found Warren Jeffs, who was then on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for multiple counts of child rape. Jeffs was the patriarch of a splinter religious faction that advocated polygamy and the marriage of young girls to much older church members. He is serving a life prison term in Texas.
  • Officers of the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Police Department were investigating a suspicious vehicle that turned out to be carrying Lamont Stephenson. Stephenson was then on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for murdering his fiancée. Stephenson is serving a sentence of 31.5 years in a New Jersey prison.

One of the arguments against enforcement of low-level traffic violations is that minority drivers are disproportionately punished. Mean U.S. household income for white families is $81,060, while black households bring in only $52,860 on average. Vehicle owners with lower incomes are more likely to not pay for vehicle registration or insurance, forego equipment repair that doesn’t directly affect the usability of the vehicle, or to pay traffic fines.

Unpaid traffic fines that turn into arrest warrants can contribute to a downward spiral of poverty. A driver can’t afford to pay insurance premiums, so they drive until they get caught and cited. They can’t pay the fine and an arrest warrant is issued. They are arrested and jailed, and owe even more money to the court, making it even less likely they will get insured.

There is an argument to be made for enforcement of these laws in the face of inequitable penalties. Vehicles in good repair are involved in fewer accidents, making everyone safer. Drivers are required to carry liability insurance with good reason. Law-abiding drivers should not be penalized with higher insurance rates because other people on the road in their community don’t insure their cars. The sentiment among many motorists is “I have to obey the law — why don’t they?” where the “they” is whatever faction the motorist doesn’t belong to.

Elimination of low-level traffic enforcement can be troublesome for public sector managers in and outside of law enforcement. Some local governments depend on traffic enforcement for revenue generation. Fewer tickets mean fewer dollars in the city or country treasury. Police managers who use the number of traffic citations written as a metric for officer productivity have to find some different sort of beans to count.

A simple solution to the problem is for drivers to use public transportation, but it’s an unrealistic remedy. Few U.S. cities have public transportation systems that can replace the need for a car. When there is any public transportation at all, it may not be close to the commuter’s home or workplace. Shopping for groceries and other necessities is at best awkward when a bus or train is involved. The transportation facilities or the “last mile” between the bus stop or train station and the rider’s home may be unsafe.

Some states have tried to codify this new deemphasis on low-level traffic enforcement by enacting laws limiting what the police can do. It hasn’t worked very well. In 2021, Washington state enacted several laws limiting police powers and equipment and had to back-pedal some of them when they were shown to be impractical. One new law forbade Washington officers to engage in a vehicle pursuit unless there was probable cause to believe an occupant in the vehicle had committed a violent offense, a sex offense, or there was RAS that the driver was impaired. When the Seattle Police were pursuing a man who had taken his girlfriend hostage, the driver called 9-1-1 to complain the pursuit was illegal and demanded they break it off. He was eventually stopped after tire spikes were deployed against his vehicle.

After a few more grim stories of police being unable to prosecute investigations and take needed actions due to the new laws, the Washington legislature backed off a little. Washington officers now need only RAS, not probable cause, to pursue suspects in violent crimes, sex crimes, domestic violence, and vehicular assault. Seattle PD places further restrictions on officers, requiring them to have completed an emergency vehicle operator’s course in the two years prior to the pursuit, and to have training in pursuit intervention. They still can’t chase stolen cars or suspects in other types of theft if those are the only offenses known.

It’s unclear if these new limits on traffic stops and other vehicle-related enforcement will contribute to overall public safety. So far, it appears the initial efforts to limit stops have been an overreach that hampers police effectiveness and injures morale that is already underwater. It remains to be seen if there is some happy medium between police efficiency and public confidence.

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Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.