Road stops as criminal investigations: pretext stops should be banned in Minnesota

Minnesota’s criminal justice system has one of the worst racial disparities in the country. We incarcerate African Americans in our state prisons at a rate of 1,219 per 100,000 of their representation in the general population, while the rate is 111 for Caucasians. While poverty and other societal factors play a role, there is no doubt that implicit biases, which exacerbate racial disparities, affect the decisions made by prosecutors, judges, police, law enforcement officials. probation and public defenders.

Existing in our subconscious, implicit prejudices cause us to have feelings and attitudes towards others based on race and other characteristics. Although we form these prejudices at a very young age, we are often unaware of them. Because implicit bias is predictive of our behavior, a United States Supreme Court ruling over 20 years ago virtually guaranteed that racial disparities in traffic stops would continue to be pervasive.

In 1996, a Supreme Court unanimously ruled that roadside checks under the pretext of police officers were constitutional. The case, United States v. Whren, allows police officers to use minor traffic violations – such as failing to signal a lane change, not wearing a seat belt, or exceeding the speed limit by a mile or two – to justify stopping a car to investigate other potential wrongdoing. As long as the officer can identify a traffic violation, the stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizures, although it is a pretext to investigate unrelated criminal activity. .

The concerns of the Minnesota Supreme Court

Less than a year later, the Minnesota Supreme Court recognized the potential abuse of traffic stops after Whren. When faced with the question of whether a driver voluntarily consented to a post-stop search, the court wrote: The reasonableness of a traffic stop does not depend on the actual motives of the officer involved.

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One of the concerns of the Minnesota Supreme Court was that very few drivers can get very far without breaking some aspect of the traffic laws. In other words, if officers want to investigate a driver for some reason, they simply follow the car long enough to find a minor traffic violation to warrant stopping. The second problem was that “the police, who have enormous discretion in enforcing the traffic laws, can use their right to stop motorists for routine traffic violations in order to target members. of groups identified by factors totally inadmissible as the basis of the law. law enforcement activity. One of those inadmissible factors is, of course, race.

Mary F. Moriarty

The Minneapolis Police Department’s public website has a dashboard with data on traffic stops and searches. No other police service in the country voluntarily posts such comprehensive demographic data. According to police chief Medaria Arradondo, this transparency is intended to promote difficult discussions about race. In 2018, Minneapolis police officers arrested 7,195 cars for equipment violations. Although the black population in Minneapolis is 18.8%, 54.8% (3,940) of the drivers arrested were black. Police conducted searches after 856 of these equipment stoppages, and 640 of those searched were black. So when the police searched after a traffic stop for equipment violation, 74.8% of those searched were black.

How to interpret these substantial racial disparities? Police Racial Profiling Black Drivers in Minneapolis? If so, is it based on the explicit or implicit belief that they are more likely to commit crimes? Do police proactively patrol areas where gun violence occurs and stop black drivers at a disproportionate rate because they live in those areas? How many searches after traffic stops actually result in guns, and is that an efficient use of limited police resources? Do searches that do not reveal anything affect police relations with members of the black community? These are difficult questions to answer.

For many, these disparities are evidence of ‘driving in black’. Instead of giving the driver a ticket or warning for the alleged violation, the officer asks personal, unrelated questions about where the driver is going or why they are in that neighborhood. A black driver is now forced to justify his location, even if he is not suspected of any particular crime. The officer can ask for consent to search the car, which drivers often give because they think they have no choice.

The stakes are high for black drivers

Some would argue that this type of interaction is a minor price to pay for effective law enforcement, especially if the driver has nothing to hide. But what about Philando Castile, the 32-year-old black man killed by a cop who arrested him claiming he looked like a theft suspect because of the “wide nose”? Before being killed, Castile was arrested by law enforcement in the Twin Cities 46 times for minor traffic violations. The reality is that any interaction between police and black drivers can result in physical or psychological damage. The stakes for black drivers are too high to regard traffic stops as an inconvenience. And research tells us that racial profiling of drivers is not an effective law enforcement tool.

To study racial profiling and routine traffic stops, North Carolina in 1999 became the first state to require state soldiers to record demographic data for every traffic stop on the freeway. Three years later, the legislature extended the law to include all state police departments and traffic stops. Extensive demographics now exist for over 20 million road stops in North Carolina.

The authors of the book “Suspect Citizens” analyzed this data and found that black drivers were about twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped by police. Once arrested, they were twice as likely to be searched. Young black men have also been searched at an “alarming rate”, leading to mistrust of the police from members of the black community.

Racial disparities did not disappear when police carried out checks to investigate specific offenses, such as drinking and driving. Few of the officers, perhaps the most likely to stop black drivers, were also not responsible for the disparities. Officers were less likely to find contraband on black drivers, so police weren’t just looking in the right place. According to one of the authors, “Ultimately, racially disparate search rates seem to occur because the police tend to have unwarranted suspicion of young men of color.”

The authors have drawn several conclusions. First, the use of the highway code for criminal investigations was an extremely inefficient use of police resources, as only 12% of searches after checks resulted in arrests for smuggling. Second, because the traffic stops were racist, they generated enormous mistrust of the police in the targeted communities. Third, implicit biases and institutional procedures were the basis of the traffic control models. Accordingly, they recommended that roadside checks be used to protect the community from unsafe driving behavior, and not as an excuse to stop and search a car.

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Many law enforcement officers described the data as “deeply flawed.” According to Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue, “I think there was some resistance among law enforcement to adopt the findings. The police are embarking on this work for noble reasons. … So when you see results that suggest your work is having disproportionate impacts, it’s hard to digest.

Credited for improving the work of the department

Blue, however, was one of the first police chiefs to implement some of the recommendations, which he attributes to improving the work of the department. He said his officers still carry out road checks, but “the quality of their road checks has increased, the number of unnecessary searches has decreased and the number of searches resulting in the seizure of contraband, firearms, increased. ”

In Hennepin County alone, there are more than 35 law enforcement agencies. While individual police services may adopt practices designed to reduce racial disparities, a patchwork of policies across the state would not be as effective as a judicial solution. Our Supreme Court has also historically interpreted our state’s Constitution to provide greater protections under the Fourth Amendment.

Twenty years ago, the Minnesota Supreme Court expressed serious concerns about traffic stops and potential racial bias after the Whren decision. We now have more research on how implicit bias can influence perceptions, even by the most well-meaning police officers. And we have data showing large racial disparities in traffic stops by the Minneapolis Police Department.

Reducing racial disparities in traffic stops in Minnesota is more critical than ever. Police find it difficult to build relationships with members of the black community. The shooting of Philando Castille, after a pretext stop, should be a tragic reminder that these interactions are not a minor inconvenience for black drivers. These reasons alone should lead our courts to interpret our state’s constitution to provide greater protection under the Fourth Amendment by prohibiting the use of pretexts for law enforcement in that state.

Mary F. Moriarty is the Chief Counsel for Hennepin County.


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Mark M. Gagnon