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Pretext Traffic Stops Don’t Stop Car Accidents or Make Society SaferTraffic stops happen every day across the country, and the general public rarely hears about them. After all, why would they? They’re common enough that most of us have experienced one ourselves. If a traffic stop occurs it should be as simple as having a ticket written and moving on with your day.

However, for millions of Black drivers across the country a routine traffic stop can end up in a death sentence. The country didn’t hear much about them, either, until bystander videos started making their way to social media, alerting the country to the issue. And yet knowledge of these tragedies doesn’t seem to be doing much to eliminate them.

Duante Wright was pulled over for driving with an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror and expired tags. It was considered a pretext traffic stop, meaning that police believed he had committed a traffic violation which allowed them to pull him over. However, once the police collected and ran Wright’s information, they found there was a warrant for his arrest.

The warrant was essentially related to unpaid court fines, nothing even closely related to a violent offense. Like any sane person, Wright was frightened when he was being taken into custody. His fight or flight response kicked in and he attempted to get back into his vehicle. A veteran police officer grabbed her gun and fatally shot Daunte. She alleges that she believed it was her taser and simply made a mistake.

This alleged mistake cost a man his life.

Traffic laws are broken by all, but enforcement is targeted

What was done to Daunte Wright demands a discussion of whether pretext stops are necessary. Police, of course, are on the side that these stops are necessary to find other illegal activity like drugs. They also say these stops can help prevent car accidents, which is a problem all across the country.

However, the research does not seem to back up this theory. A study conducted in North Carolina found that when they reduced pretext traffic stops and instead focused on safety traffic stops, car accident injuries and deaths were reduced.

So why are police still conducting pretext traffic stops? For the reason you think: money.

Why financial incentives lead to more traffic stops

During the study, researchers focused on traffic stops that were economically motivated and compared those to traffic stops that were motivated by safety. Economically motivated stops like expired plates and registration do not do anything to promote the safety of other drivers and only result in drivers paying fines to the city and in turn the police department. These traffic stops do not promote safe driving or prevent car accidents; they just make money. As Vox explains:

A key mechanism embedded within the criminal legal system, and related to pretext traffic stops, is the system of monetary sanctions, or punishments that require payment. This system is comprised of fines, fees, restitution, and costs sentenced to people at the same time they are convicted and sent to jail or prison. Just like a jail or probation sentence, all monetary sanctions must be paid in full in order for a person to be released from court supervision. In many states, until all costs are paid, people are unable to vote and must remain in constant communication with court officials about their living and financial arrangements….

In 2021, cities and counties use these monetary sanctions across the nation to generate revenue for operating the criminal legal system and more. Local governments rely on these costs, much like property and sales taxes, to fund local services…. So when it comes to pretext traffic stops, police have become a kind of tax collector — the traffic stops allow police to generate profits, either via doling out traffic citations or in patrolling for people with warrants.

How often are Black people killed during traffic stops?

NPR reported in January 2021 that “Since 2015, police officers have fatally shot at least 135 unarmed Black men and women nationwide…. NPR reviewed police, court and other records to examine the details of the cases. At least 75% of the officers were white.” Daunte Wright was killed in April 2021, so we know for a fact that the number is at least 136.

Data suggests that police officers pull over and search Black drivers 1.5 to 2 times more often than white drivers.

No more profit policing

Pretext stops often end with negative if not fatal outcomes. They are financially and, per the data, racially motivated.

Unfortunately, if a person is incarcerated the state may not be able to afford the fees associated with processing and incarcerations. This has led policymakers to implement statutes that require the incarcerated person to pay for the costs associated with their own processing and incarceration.

Essentially, they are paying to be locked in a cell. If a person is incarcerated, they typically are not employed as they were on the outside. This means that the financial burden lies on their family and loved ones. If they cannot pay, then this will go on their credit making it harder to advance in life. Your credit score is used to determine where you live and sometimes the kind of job you will have.

Pretext traffic stops have now become policing for profit. This disproportionately affects Black communities. This needs to end if we ever want to make progress in systemic racism. Policymakers need to do better.

Gainsberg Law is dedicated to upholding the rights of all people, and to holding law enforcement accountable for their actions. Contact our Chicago police misconduct attorneys at 312-600-9585, or complete the contact form today. We serve clients throughout Cook County.