Over the course of 13 years, Philando Castile was pulled over by police in Minneapolis-St. Paul at least 49 times, mostly for low-level infractions. He was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop when an officer unnecessarily shot into his car – where his girlfriend and toddler were also sitting. Mr. Castile should be alive today.
In the wake of Mr. Castile’s death, the city of Minneapolis agreed that its police officers would no longer pull over drivers because of expired registrations, license plate issues, broken lights or mirrors, or failing to signal a turn unless they specifically identify a risk to public safety. These kinds of minor violations are often a pretext that officers use to stop vehicles to conduct more extensive searches.
In New Jersey, pretextual stops continue at a staggering rate, putting officers and motorists at dangerous odds, despite the majority of traffic stops doing little to contribute to public safety. Nationally, between 2017 and 2021, police killed more than 400 drivers or passengers who were both unarmed and not being stopped for a violent crime.
Traffic stops are how most members of the public interact with law enforcement, and those stops shape how both groups perceive one other. Even though most traffic stops are peaceful, they can lead to fines, searches, arrests, and other interactions with the criminal legal system that overwhelmingly impact low-income people, as well as Black and brown communities that have historically been targeted by decades of racist over-policing.
Across the country, Black drivers and their vehicles are searched about 1.5 to 2 times as often as white drivers once stopped, even though they were less likely to be carrying drugs, guns, or other illegal contraband compared to their white peers. And here in New Jersey, Black and Latino motorists were 9.3 and 16.1 percent more likely to be stopped by police than white motorists between 2009 and 2021.
To keep officers and motorists safe, and especially to prevent interactions that may be the difference between life and death, lawmakers must limit the legal justification for police encounters in the first place. Obviously, some traffic stops are necessary – no one wants police to avoid pulling over a car driven by a suspect in a murder investigation or one swerving because a driver is intoxicated. But the majority of stops, like less hazardous equipment failures and minor traffic violations, could be handled in alternate ways that don’t put both motorists and police officers at unnecessary risk.
Because these stops disproportionately burden drivers of color and implicate everyone’s fundamental liberties, the ACLU of New Jersey has appeared before the New Jersey Supreme Court to reduce instances of pretextual policing. In 2021, the ACLU-NJ argued that traffic stops for license plate frames partially covering “Garden State” – which accounted for more than 100,000 stops each year – were unconstitutional. And in 2022, the ACLU-NJ argued that tinted but transparent windows are not a legal justification for stops and searches. In both cases, the justices agreed.
Even though these were wise decisions that will make us all safer, more must be done to fully address pretextual stops in New Jersey, and it requires action from the Legislature.
Lawmakers must create an infrastructure for public safety that encourages police departments to handle minor infractions without pulling drivers over. This doesn’t mean ignoring broken taillights; to the contrary, it means increased safety for drivers and officers by handling the matter through the mail – ideally with a voucher for a low-cost repair – rather than being put in a high-stress, high-danger situation on the side of the road.
Everyone benefits when we steer policing away from low-level traffic stops to no-contact ticketing. Nationally, these sorts of reforms enjoy big-tent coalitions, showing just how commonsense they are. From grassroots community organizations, to the ACLU, to the American Automobile Association, to the Center for Policing Equity, the push is on to introduce legislation that limit stops for offenses that aren’t related to safety; addresses racial disparities in enforcement, and lets agencies focus on dangerous driving behavior that actually leads to crashes. Such legislation must continue to require data collection by all law enforcement agencies, to allow communities to create locally developed solution-oriented responses to traffic violations, and to establish grant programs that supply repair vouchers and other nonpunitive tools to address safety concerns for low-income drivers.
Traffic safety does not need to be a zero-sum game, and it certainly does not need to contribute to New Jersey’s racial disparities in policing. We can make our motorways safer for everyone – we only need our legislators to act.
This piece was originally published by USA Today Network New Jersey.