After the Memphis death of Tyre Nichols, who was pulled over in a traffic stop that turned deadly, critics have called for a reduction in police stopping drivers for minor offenses and eliminating so-called pretext stops that disproportionately affect people of color. A handful of places, including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and the state of Virginia have taken steps to deter police from stopping drivers for violations like dangling air fresheners, just-expired documents, and burned-out bulbs that don’t hinder visibility, according to Bloomberg. Traffic stops are the most common way the public comes into contact with police. It’s also a common catalyst for police violence. At least 86 traffic stops turned deadly last year alone, according to Mapping Police Violence. Several localities began looking at ways to limit such interactions during the 2020 protest movement over police brutality, citing evidence that not all traffic enforcement is necessary for public safety. “Those jurisdictions have recognized there's really no benefit to requiring officers to conduct these stops,” said Akhi Johnson, a former prosecutor who now directs the Vera Institute’s Reshaping Prosecution Initiative. “These stops don’t make us safer, perpetuate disparities in who gets pulled into the criminal legal system, and unnecessarily put officers in harm’s way.”
Criminal justice advocates say low-level violations are often used as justification for pretext stops, in which police cite a minor issue to search a car or a driver for weapons or drugs. They’re rarely successful, studies show. While drivers of color are disproportionately targeted, they’re not more likely to carry contraband.
The encounters can erode trust with police and discourage political participation. A study of traffic stops in Tampa showed that drivers who had been pulled over were less likely to vote in the next election cycle. Advocates argue that unlike speeding, or running a red light, “these are not things that are endangering people’s lives in any way,” said Johnson. “I know that there are prosecutors and police officers who firmly believe that these steps are necessary for public safety, but that’s just not what we see in the data.” California cities including Oakland and Berkeley have gone as far as proposing non-police responses to traffic violations, but those plans have yet to gain traction. Narrower reforms have drawn opposition from law enforcement and politicians who say they take away favored policing strategies. Last year, Philadelphia became the first city to make eight low-level offenses, like having a missing bumper or an item hanging from a rearview mirror an insufficient cause for pulling someone over. The window to replace a late registration was extended to 60 days, and if only one taillight is out, cops will ignore it. Drivers can still be fined or ticketed for such offenses, but they can’t be the only reason police make a stop. The effort was led by councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who said growing up in Philadelphia, he felt like being pulled over was a grim “rite of passage” as a Black man.