We’ve all seen disturbing videos of police traffic stops for minor violations like expired license plates, broken taillights and items hanging from the rearview mirror that turned deadly for drivers (as they can for officers). There have been calls for an end to these “pretext stops” for non-moving violations that are too often an excuse for officers to search vehicles for drugs, weapons and other illegal items.
People in lower-income areas and specifically people of color, police reform advocates say, are disproportionately stopped. While the legality of pretext stops has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, they’re not necessarily an effective form of policing, and they exacerbate the rift between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
What does the new policy require for a stop?
Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department changed its policy on these stops. Now LAPD officers need to suspect that someone in the vehicle has or is currently committing a serious crime before stopping a vehicle that’s not committing a moving violation. Further, they must state the suspected crime on their body camera prior to making the stop.
An analysis of LAPD data by the Los Angeles Times found that pretext stops were nearly halved within six months. Perhaps not surprisingly, the percentage of stops in which officers found illegal items (contraband) rose under the new policy. The amount of contraband seized overall, however, has decreased.
The new policy hasn’t fully satisfied anyone, it seems. The Police Protective League says it’s harmed officers’ ability to fight serious crime, while many in communities of color say they’re still stopped both in their car and on foot at a higher rate than white people. Further, the policy is vague on what kind of justification an officer can have to make a stop.
Know your rights if stopped
Too few people fully understand their rights when stopped by police. For example, you don’t have to consent to a search. If you don’t consent, police need to have probable cause for a search
A similar policy has been adopted in San Francisco, and there have been calls to limit pretext stops in San Diego and statewide. While this can cut down on your chances of an encounter with police, it’s crucial to understand your rights if you are stopped and, if you’re charged with a crime, to seek legal guidance.