Minn. attorney won't prosecute most felonies from non-public-safety traffic stops

The new policy also says they won't prosecute cases when officers ask to search a vehicle without articulable suspicion


By Mara H. Gottfried
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and some law enforcement leaders announced Wednesday a shift in traffic stops for minor infractions: St. Paul's chief told officers not to pull people for equipment violations unless there are public safety concerns. And Choi said he won't prosecute most felony cases that result from non-public-safety traffic stops.

Choi said the change is overdue because drivers of color and people who can't afford to make repairs are disproportionately affected by such traffic stops. In addition to breeding distrust, Choi said research shows that police find guns or drugs in less than 2 percent of pretextual stops — when police stop a driver for an equipment violation to seek evidence of a more serious crime.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi spoke Wednesday during a news conference at the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi spoke Wednesday during a news conference at the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. (Star Tribune)

"For the longest time, we have been policing in a way that is going after that 2 percent, but not recognizing the harm that has been done to communities," Choi said.

The largest association representing public safety professionals in Minnesota and some Republican leaders criticized the change.

"Basically, the county attorney just announced his office won't uphold the law and won't prosecute those break it," Minnesota Police and Peace Officers executive director Brian Peters said in a statement. "That's absurd, and is a slap in the face to victims of crime. Ramsey County residents be warned: those that break the law won't even get a slap on the wrist — they'll get a high-five from the county attorney and be left to commit more, and more serious offenses."

Choi said that response is "an outdated model of values" that led to the "mass incarceration crisis" in the United States. The policy changes don't apply to situations that endanger public safety or when a vehicle is stopped due to a dangerous condition, which is "when an improper or malfunctioning piece of motor vehicle equipment creates a substantial, articulable, and identifiable risk of injury to any person," according to the county attorney's office.

The county attorney's new policy also states they won't prosecute cases when officers ask to search someone's vehicle without articulable suspicion — Choi said he views that practice as "coercive." He said he believes that portion of the policy is the first of its kind in the nation.

It wasn't known how many cases that would otherwise be charged will not be prosecuted as a result of the changes — that information could be part of a later review of the policy.

Since a Brooklyn Center police officer fatally shot Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in April, state and local policymakers, along with community members, have scrutinized the practice of police pulling over drivers for minor infractions. In St. Paul and Ramsey County, the serious examination of traffic stops already was underway.

5 LOCAL AGENCIES MADE CHANGES OR DISCUSSING IT

Choi said he started talking with law enforcement leaders about changes to traffic stops after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis officer in May 2020, but he said he's had "a long journey around what justice is and should be in our community." He prosecuted a St. Anthony officer in the 2016 killing of Philando Castile during a Falcon Heights traffic stop and he said that case caused him to view the world differently.

St. Paul police data show that 43 percent of drivers pulled over by officers last year were Black. The city's population is 16.5 percent Black or African-American. A review of policing data from several surrounding communities shows similar disparities.

Out of nine law enforcement agencies in Ramsey County, five have made changes to traffic stops or are talking about it, Choi said Wednesday.

Roseville police already made a policy change and St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said Wednesday that he's begun "the process of providing guidance that directs patrol officers to prioritize their traffic enforcement efforts on what matters most to the people we serve: reducing crashes, injuries and death."

St. Anthony police implemented a strategic plan in 2018 that shifted focus from traffic enforcement to traffic and pedestrian safety, and Maplewood and New Brighton are in conversations about it.

The St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation raised money with other local philanthropic organizations to create a fund to support research, so the changes to traffic stops that are happening in St. Paul and Ramsey County can become a model across the nation and to assist low-income motorists in Ramsey County with repairing their vehicles, said Eric Jolly, the foundation's president and CEO.

SOME CRITICAL OF CHANGES

At the end of Minnesota's legislative session this year, in reaching agreement on a set of police accountability measures, Democrats dropped their push for a ban on pretextual traffic stops for minor offenses such as expired license tabs.

The Ramsey County Deputies' Federation said in a Wednesday statement that Choi's policy change is an example of him "circumventing the legislative process to satisfy his own political ambitions."

"The continued use of the term 'pre-textual traffic stop' is a loaded and weighted term to negatively portray officers who make valid traffic stops based on violations of the law," the statement continued. "To unilaterally decriminalize illegal activity discovered pursuant to a legal traffic stop is a betrayal of the office of county attorney and sends a strong signal to those engaged in criminal activity that they can do so with impunity."

Sen. Warren Limmer, R- Maple Grove, who chairs the state Senate Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, also said "the public should be outraged" by the policy change announced Wednesday by Choi.

"Violent crime is still on the rise and this is absolutely the wrong direction prosecutors should be going," he said.

Choi's policy includes a public safety exception and the county attorney's office is developing internal guidance about it.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said people who are concerned about crime in the community "are the proof that we need a new approach — that just doubling down on doing more of the same things that we did last year and 10 years ago or 20 years ago won't produce the different, new evolved better outcomes that we all desire from our public safety system."

Wednesday's announcement about changing traffic stop practices is part of data-driven strategies that "allows our officers to focus more and more and more of their time on those kind of intense issues of crime and violence that keep families up worried at night," Carter said.

Carter convened a community-based commission that researched and made recommendations in May about public safety in the city. Among the commission's recommendations were that traffic stops be ceased, except for serious situations.

(c)2021 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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