In a first-of-its-kind move for a major U.S. city, Philadelphia has banned its police force from pulling over motorists for minor offenses, including broken taillights or improperly displayed registration.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that proponents of the city’s Driving Equality Bill, which passed Thursday after a 14-2 city council vote, say police have long used “pretextual stops” for low-level violations to give officers a reason to search a vehicle they suspect is carrying illegal drugs or weapons.
Studies have shown these stops have led to a disproportionate amount of Black and Latino drivers being unfairly pulled over and searched. These stops have also turned deadly in some instances, like the police killing of Daunte Wright.
From the Inquirer:
The new law is likely to have a significant impact on the nature of policing in Philadelphia. About 97% of police vehicle stops are for low-level violations, according to the Defender Association. Eliminating those could lead to as many as 300,000 fewer police encounters each year, it projected.
“This is something that is historic that could put us in a position where we’re addressing an issue that has been plaguing Black communities,” said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who authored the bill. “Philadelphia is leading the nation when it comes to this particular issue.”
The U.S. Supreme Court approved of using minor traffic violations as a means for officers to pursue their suspicions that subjects had committed unrelated crimes in a 1996 decision.
While Philadelphia may be the first major city to pass legislation that restricts pretextual stops, Virginia was the first state to do so in March.
According to NBC News, the number of Black drivers in Virginia who were subjected to searches after being pulled over by police dropped by 40 percent:
Black people still accounted for about 30 percent of all traffic stops — the same percentage as before the law was changed — even though they are about 20 percent of the population of Virginia. White people, who make up 65 percent of the population, accounted for slightly under 65 percent of the stops before and after the law was changed, the early data show.
Da’Quan Marcell Love, the executive director of the Virginia NAACP, said the decline in the number of searches of Black drivers shows that the reforms are broadly working. But he said advocates are waiting to see how the situation plays out in the long term.
“We have to give it time to work,” Love said. “We are not launching a celebration any time soon.”
The Inquirer reports that Black drivers made up 72 percent of those stopped for vehicle code violations in Philadelphia over a year-long period that ended in September 2019. Black residents only make up 43 percent of the city’s population. Searches of their vehicles only turned up illegal drugs or guns less than one percent of the time, per data provided to the newspaper.
Once the new Philadelphia law takes effect, per the Inquirer, officers will instead issue and mail citations to drivers for low-level traffic violations.