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After Wright killing, DFL legislators move quickly in push to limit traffic stops

The bill to limit pretextual stops has become a top priority for Democrats, and Republicans who control state Senate haven’t completely rejected the idea. 

Air fresheners are seen hanging from a fence as people gather outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department to demand justice days after former police officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright.
Air fresheners are seen hanging from a fence as people gather outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department to demand justice days after former police officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright.
REUTERS/Nick Pfosi

Before Daunte Wright was killed by an ex-Brooklyn Center officer, police say the 20-year-old was pulled over for expired car tabs.

Under legislation advanced by Democrats who control the Minnesota House, a stop for outdated tabs would never happen. House lawmakers approved a wide set of bills Wednesday aimed at changing policing standards, including a measure to end traffic stops for vehicle infractions such as having improper registration, hanging objects from a driver’s rearview mirror or driving with a single broken tail light.

DFLers and civil rights organizations have called for an end to such traffic stops, which can lead to arrests for outstanding warrants or other suspected crimes, citing data that show racial disparities in who gets pulled over.

The bill to limit stops was introduced just last week, but it’s quickly risen to the top of the DFL priority list at the Capitol. Asked Tuesday what specific reforms he’s focused on, Gov. Tim Walz said the traffic stop measure is “an immediate one.”

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And while Republicans who hold a majority in the state Senate have not committed to passing any police accountability measures this session, they also haven’t completely rejected the idea of ending traffic stops for less serious infractions.

A push to end pretext stops

The traffic stop bill approved on Wednesday was part of a much larger package of legislation tied to public safety, corrections and the judiciary written by House Democrats. The collection of bills, known as an omnibus, passed on a 70-63 vote that was almost entirely along party lines. 

State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
State Rep. Cedrick Frazier
Originally sponsored by state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, and Rep. Kelly Moller, DFL-Shoreview, the traffic stop measure says officers can’t pull over drivers for infractions like tinted windows, outdated car tabs or broken or loud mufflers. Police can ticket people for those offenses if they’re stopped for other reasons, such as speeding, or if the car is unoccupied.

The bill also says police can’t stop drivers for equipment problems such as license plate lights, some headlight, taillight or brake light infractions and certain windshield offenses. But police can stop people if those problems are dangerous, such as if both of a driver’s headlights or taillights are out, or if a windshield issue “creates an imminent threat to human life.”

Under the measure, police are encouraged to send a letter to any driver who an officer finds has a vehicle infraction.

“We don’t need to have law enforcement making these types of stops,” said Frazier during a hearing of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee last week. “We don’t need to create these type of interactions that we’re seeing go in a totally wrong direction that escalate to the point of death on our Black men.”

Frazier recalled when he was pulled over as a teenager for having a tail light out while driving his aunt’s car. He said he was detained for 45 minutes in a more affluent neighborhood because police “didn’t believe it was my vehicle.”

“I was terrified, I didn’t know what to do,” Frazier said. “Watching the video of Daunte, I saw that same fear … I believe he reacted to that fear.”

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Supporters of limiting traffic stops by police cite data showing Black Minnesotans being pulled over at far higher rates than white residents. The Star Tribune reported that 54 percent of drivers stopped by Minneapolis police for moving violations or vehicle infractions between June of 2019 and April of 2020 were Black/East African. 

Stanford’s Open Policing Project has collected data from nearly 100 million traffic stops from 50 departments across the country and found officers generally pull over Black drivers at higher rates than white drivers.

Officers often use these stops as a pretext to look for other crimes. The Star Tribune also found 78 percent of drivers searched after being pulled over for a moving violation or equipment infraction were Black/East African. Only 26 percent of searches of Black and East African residents resulted in arrest while 41 percent of searches of white drivers led to arrest, the paper’s data show. When Wright was pulled over, police looked up his record and found a gross misdemeanor warrant for his arrest, leading them to try to detain him.

After Jeronimo Yanez killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in 2016 in Falcon Heights, St. Anthony police agreed to collect and report data on the race of people they pull over. In the years after, the department also said they would focus on pulling over people for unsafe driving rather than other citations. The department did pull over fewer people for vehicle violation stops like expired registration, and pulled over more people for moving violations like speeding.

The percent of traffic stops involving Black drivers rose, however, from 28 percent in 2017 to 34 percent in 2019. The cities where St. Anthony cops patrol are roughly 17 percent Black in aggregate.

Nearly 40 liberal groups and small businesses, including unions, faith groups and environmental nonprofits, signed a letter calling for police reform measures Wednesday, and the first bill they mentioned was the legislation to limit traffic stops. A letter from the Minnesota Business Partnership sent to lawmakers Monday also says lawmakers should consider such policy.

Republicans, police groups want to vet the bill further

In a hearing before the House’s Ways and Means Committee last week, Republicans said they wanted more information on how a ban on low-level traffic stops would operate. Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, asked how the state might be able to collect money for vehicle registration without pulling drivers over, and asked if there should be another mechanism to recoup money, such as adding late fees.

Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, said traffic stops are the primary enforcement for vehicle registration, and people may choose to simply not pay for new tabs. He said low-level stops are also a key way officers verify whether drivers have insurance, and he said he worries people will skip buying insurance with less of a threat of being stopped. “If I choose to be careful in how I drive … I could go years without paying tabs and insurance,” he said.

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Democrats said people still are expected to pay their tabs regularly, and Rep. Frank Hornstein, a Minneapolis DFLer who chairs the House’s transportation committee, said he believes the state can send letters to people with expired tabs and find other ways to collect money. Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services and the Department of Public Safety did not testify on the subject and didn’t respond to a request for information on the issue from MinnPost.

State Rep. Peggy Scott
State Rep. Peggy Scott
Rep. Peggy Scott, a Republican from Andover, said she was “intrigued” by the bill and said her concern was primarily with collecting tab fees. But she also said the measure “is being rushed through a little bit.” The legislation got only brief hearings in two committees, without a stop in Hornstein’s transportation committee.

Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, said last week that his organization doesn’t have a position on the bill yet since it was so recently introduced. He said some equipment violations like windshield problems are a concern because they are important to the structural integrity of the car, and can therefore be a safety issue.

He said maybe there’s a line legislators can walk where they don’t “compromise traffic safety” significantly in his view. But he said lawmakers haven’t had enough time to find where that line is.

Potts also said police chiefs have considered the implications for stops that lead to arrests for more serious issues. But he said “It can’t be all that — the police want to maintain all of the tools they have to find ways to arrest people who are breaking the law.”

“I think it all kind of goes into how are we using traffic enforcement and how does that play into the level of trust that the community has for their police department,” Potts said.

Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts
Bloomington Police Chief Jeff Potts
For some cops, minor traffic stops can be a small portion of the job in cities where officers have to handle lots of calls. “You have very little time to go out and look for cars to stop,” he said. But for agencies with more undedicated time, if you’re out on patrol, you make a lot more traffic stops.

Potts said his organization has floated the idea of putting race data on people’s driver’s licenses because they think it would lead to better data on who is stopped. He said officers generally have to ask a driver for their race or make their best guess on that information during traffic stops. “Right now I believe it’s a lot of speculation,” he said.

The House omnibus public safety bill does include a measure that would require the state’s police licensing board to review the rate of arrests and stops involving people of color “if data is available” for state and local police departments.

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Late Wednesday, Republicans held a floor vote in the House to remove the measure limiting traffic stops from the larger omnibus bill on grounds that it hadn’t been fully researched. State Rep. John Koznick, R-Lakeville, said “the most important thing is we haven’t had the opportunity to vet this out.” But he also described the measure as “counter to public safety” and “hostile to law enforcement.”

The House voted the amendment down 54-78, which preserved the bill restricting traffic stops. Three Republicans voted with Democrats to keep the measure, and two didn’t vote. The five members of the conservative New House Republican caucus, which split from the GOP, also voted with Democrats to keep the legislation in the omnibus bill.

Rep. Jeremy Munson, a New Republican from Lake Crystal, said on the House floor that the state can collect car tab fees through administrative means like it does for other taxes and noted Minnesota has been slow during the pandemic to deliver car tabs to drivers. He also said when police stop drivers who carry guns it creates “added tension” during what he believes is an unnecessary stop. “We should not be using valuable time of our public safety officers for enforcing something that does not have to do with public safety,” Munson said.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka told MPR last week that he was open to talking about limiting traffic stops, but on Wednesday he reiterated that he felt the Legislature accomplished substantial change in 2020 by passing a slew of police accountability bills in the wake of police killing George Floyd.

The Republican majority leader said on the Senate floor Wednesday that he plans to hold informational hearings, likely starting next Friday, on potential new reforms the GOP might support. Passing a two-year budget, he said, remains his top priority before the Legislature is set to adjourn May 17.

“I still am not saying we will definitely do more police accountability this next four weeks,” Gazelka said. “There may be something, I’m not saying we will not.”

Gazelka also cautioned that lawmakers shouldn’t act too quickly to change policing statutes. He noted the Legislature approved a change to the law governing when police can use deadly force last year around 2 a.m. after hurried and private negotiations. One element of that change, which had never received a public hearing, may be unconstitutional. Lawmakers are trying to delay the implementation of it now.

“We want to make sure that everything we do is done, we get it right, we get it right the first time,” Gazelka said. “And part of that is taking the process to listen, to do hearings, and not necessarily be confined to the next three week period.”

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn
Even though the traffic stop bill was introduced late in session, and has had two brief public hearings and limited outside testimony, Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, said “good policy is good policy no matter when it comes.”

Becker-Finn said during a news conference that such limitations have been implemented elsewhere so they’re not totally untested. Virginia banned officers from pulling over drivers for vehicle infractions such as objects hung on rearview mirrors or smelling marijuana. They can stop drivers whose registration sticker is fourth months out of date.

On the House floor, Moller, the Shoreview Democrat, said lawmakers wanted to move quickly for a reason: “The sense of urgency in hearing this is so we don’t end up with another Daunte Wright killed or Philando Castile killed.”