Stop the car stops | Column

Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Daunte Wright told his mother he was getting pulled over because he had an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. The Brooklyn Center police say it was due to expired license tabs. 

The truth is it hardly matters: If police want to pull you over, they can pull you over. 

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, is trying to do something about this, offering a measure that would prohibit police from pulling you over just because you have a cracked windshield or a sticker showing expired car tabs. 

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, replied sheepishly during a committee hearing last week: “At the end of the day, if the cop can articulate a lawful reason for why they were suspicious (of a crime) to pull you over, they can still do it.” 

Becker-Finn acknowledged the point during the hearing: “Peace officers have an incredible power to pull people over for many reasons.” 

For example: Your windows are tinted too dark. A light that illuminates your license plate is out, even if the other one works and the plate is perfectly visible. Rosary beads from your rearview

All of these are reasons to pull someone over. And once that’s happened, the police officer can punch through the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which is supposed to protect us from unlawful search and seizure — but whose tattered remnants have been worn away for a half century. 

Jeffrey Sheridan, a Minnesota criminal defense lawyer, cited the Supreme Court decision Pennsylvania v. Mimms in particular for having eroded the rights of people in cars. We know there are many reasons to pull you over. And then once you’ve been detained at the side of the road, police need the thinnest justification to force you out of the car. The current interpretation of the 4th amendment instead “provides ample opportunity for police interested in forcing an encounter with a citizen,” Sheridan said. 

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And who is getting searched? The statutes are practically written to ensure police can easily search lower income people because of all the potential equipment infractions that are visible on older cars — which disproportionately affects people of color. 

“It leaves immense discretionary power to the people enforcing the statutes to enforce them whatever way they see fit,” Sheridan said. 

And there’s little doubt that Black men are more likely to get pulled over, according to a study of 100 million police stops by researchers at Stanford University. They’re also more likely to get searched. 

As Andy Mannix reported for the Star Tribune Sunday, in Minneapolis, “Black and East African drivers account for 78% of times a police officer pulls someone over for a moving or equipment violation and end up searching the vehicle, according to one year of Minneapolis police data ending in May 2020.” 

Reducing these traffic stops, as Becker-Finn is seeking to accomplish with her measure, would lower the risk of dangerous interactions between police and young Black men. Set aside for a moment the disastrous case of Wright and his assailant, former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter. As University of Minnesota sociologist Michelle Phelps pointed out to me last week, even in the best case, these stops make Black people feel like second class citizens for having to deal with constant scrutiny that seems more like harassment than being protected and served.

Remember that even before the fatal stop that led to the death of Philando Castile, he’d been pulled over 49 times in 13 years for the minor infractions that somehow rarely impede a white person in an Audi. 

“It has pernicious consequences for what those people experience,” said Phelps, whose specialty is the sociology of punishment. 

OK, you say, but what about those cases when the police officer stops a car for overly tinted windows on a hunch, smells marijuana and then searches the car and finds an illegal gun used in a murder. 

Or, the classic story of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, getting pulled over for not having a vehicle tag.  

“The challenge is to weigh data against these anecdotes,” said Seth Stoughton, a former Florida police officer who is currently a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. 

He distinguished between police having good intelligence that a suspect is driving a specific car and is carrying an illegal gun, versus a random dragnet in which police are pulling over cars that seem “suspicious” by using a pretext like expired tabs or a broken tail light.   

“We have a lot of data about truly broad, wide scale random interventions like traffic stops, and they’re not very effective at crime control,” he said.  

As Stoughton and Phelps point out, these stops come with collateral costs. 

They’re an infringement of people’s freedom. Feeling besieged, the community is less likely to help the police solve crimes. 

And the bitter paradox is that a key way police can improve relations with the community is by solving crimes, like the kind that raged through the Twin Cities last year. 

Without community help, police aren’t proficient at solving even the most high profile violent crimes. More than half of Minneapolis homicides last year went unsolved. Metro area police made an arrest in just 34% of rape cases and 28% of robberies in 2019

So what do people do? I’ll leave it to Lil Baby, who sings in “Bigger Picture”: 

You gotta know how to survive
Crazy, I had to tell all of my loved ones
To carry a gun when they going outside

Absent police solving crimes, people arm themselves and, worse yet, take matters into their own hands, which leads to cycles of violence and retribution.

We tend to think of liberty and security as in tension with each other. We’re willing to sacrifice a bit of our security for liberty, or vice versa. 

We should consider whether this kind of overpolicing of Black communities is making people less free and less safe.