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New research shines a light on racism in pretext traffic stops

The routine traffic stop is a staple of modern-day policing. A broken taillight, a missing license plate or a failure to signal a turn could each prompt a police officer to pull a car over, ask some questions and issue a citation.

Many law enforcement officials and politicians claim these “pretext” stops to find evidence of more serious crimes, but new research from New York University (NYU) claims otherwise.

Lawmakers push for change

Police pull over more than 20 million people each year; about 50,000 traffic stops every day. The executive director of the Policing Project at NYU, Farhang Hydari, leads a team of researchers examining data from over 100 million traffic stops. The team found that police stopped white drivers 20% less than Black drivers. White drivers were also searched 1.5 to 2 times less than Black drivers, even though white drivers were more likely to carry illegal items like guns or drugs.

With more public attention on the over-policing of Black communities and the number of Black people killed by police, many lawmakers seek to end pretext stops. In late August 2020, the Virginia Senate passed a bill ending the practice of issuing citations for broken license plate lights, rearview mirror obstructions, tinted windows, noisy exhaust, and even the odor of marijuana. Oakland, California passed similar legislation in 2018, and many other cities are transferring the enforcement of minor traffic violations to local transportation departments.

Police officials resist the change

Many police officials reject the necessity of the changes, believing that the costs outweigh the benefits. Texas officials often cite the famous arrest of Timothy McVeigh in 1995, arrested for a missing license plate shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing. Data suggests otherwise, however — a study of over a quarter-million traffic stops in San Diego found that only 1.3% led to arrests. Former Republican Mayor and police chief of San Diego Jerry Sanders believes, “we need to be fundamentally rethinking the way we police.”

Legal protections for targeted individuals

Citizens facing criminal charges from an illegal traffic stop or search can find legal success by working with a local attorney familiar with New York criminal law. A lawyer can assess one’s case, build a solid defense and protect an individual’s rights.