Have you ever been pulled over by a police officer for a broken taillight or an expired license? What about failing to signal a turn? Police officers often use these minor infractions as an excuse to pull a vehicle over and interrogate the driver, searching for other crimes unrelated to the stop.
These “pretext stops” have come under scrutiny in recent years as police reform enters the national spotlight. Lawmakers around the country call for an end to pretext stops as new research suggests a massive racial disparity in police use of the practice.
Should a broken taillight lead to a warrantless search?
Traffic stops are the most common interaction between civilians and police. Officers make 50,000 traffic stops every day, pulling over 20 million people each year. Critics suggest that police possess too much discretion in deciding who gets pilled over — with thousands of traffic laws, driving without committing a minor infraction is nearly impossible. So, when data from the Policing Project from the New York University School of Law reveals that police pull over white drivers 20% less than Black drivers, police discretion comes under scrutiny.
Researchers from NYU and Stanford studied data from 100 million traffic stops that took place over a decade. The study revealed that police searched white drivers half as often as Black drivers, even though white drivers were more likely carrying illegal contraband like guns or drugs. These searches require that police establish “probable cause” before executing a search, but the data implies that police rely on racial discrimination instead.
Lawmakers propose changes
To combat this troubling trend, lawmakers hope to redefine the traffic stop. In 2019, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that, during traffic stops, police can only ask questions about the violation that prompted the stop. Virginia lawmakers introduced legislation banning traffic stops for broken taillights, exhaust noise, tinted windows, and other non-criminal infractions.
Were you a victim of an illegal search? A lawyer can help
Studies like those from the Policing Project have already begun to impact legislation that protects civilians from illegal searches, but we still have a long way to go. If you face charges from an unlawful search, a local attorney familiar with Missouri criminal defense can help.