Traffic Stop Felonies, Declined

Even without the travesty of Whren, car stops held a special place of infamy in the police “arsenal.” Largely excepted from the constraints of the Fourth Amendment under the “automobile exception,” rife with potential for racial profiling and abusive threats to obtain consent and obeisance from the understandably fearful, it was an opportunity too easy for cops to ignore. Bad things happened. A lot. Far too often.

But the argument in favor of them is that “good things” came of it too, such as the busts where drugs or an illegal gun was found, thus justifying, or at least off-setting, the many abuses. Whether the occasional felony bust that came of a random car stop was sufficient to assuage the conscience of those who squinted hard at the tens of thousands of abusive stops for that one big bust was a matter of sensibilities.

Was the price worth it?  Ramsey County, Minnesota, Attorney David Choi decided it was not.

In honor of Castile, Choi announced Wednesday his office will no longer prosecute felony cases resulting from minor traffic stops for violations like an expired registration, overly tinted windows, or broken lights. The change, Choi said, is a deliberate attempt to cut down on what he said are unnecessary stops by police of people of color that too often spiral into fatal incidents.

“I’m not going to do this anymore,” Choi told The Daily Beast. “I am not going to perpetuate these unjust practices that disproportionately impact my community.”

Choi prosecuted Officer Jeronimo Yanez for killing Philando Castile, driving a car stopped for an equipment violation, who informed, as the law required and good sense suggested, Yanez that he had a licensed gun. It remains one of the worst examples of the First Rule of Policing clashing with the Reasonably Scared Cop Rule in the hands of an idiot. To be fair to Choi, that case was awful and the acquittal must have been brutal. That it had an impact on Choi’s sensibilities is entirely understandable.

Despite the praise from some corners, Choi told The Daily Beast he’s been working behind the scenes to get police departments in his county onboard with the change. The hope, he said, is that his new strategy isn’t just a top-down decision, but one that would also inspire departments to amend their own internal policies and practices—which experts said often train police to stop drivers of color and those in high crime areas with low-level traffic stops in the hopes of finding drugs or guns.

There’s an internal irony at work here, with police complaining about the risk to their safety from car stops, since you never know whether the driver will be just a driver or a mass murderer, and the cops’ remarkable affection for stopping cars, particularly cars driven by black people whom they assume would be more fertile ground to discover a felony hiding in the trunk. And so, the police unsurprisingly disagree with Choi’s position.

But Allison Schaber, the president of a union representing Ramsey County Sheriff Office deputies, told The Daily Beast that Choi’s new policy “is another example of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office circumventing the legislative process to satisfy his own political ambitions.” Schaber said Choi furthers the “misnomer” that valid traffic stops for small violations “are anything less than legal stops that target activity already deemed illegal.”

Schaber isn’t wrong, exactly. Assuming the stop to be otherwise valid,  this is conduct that’s been deemed sufficiently wrongful as to be made unlawful. So how can you blame the cops for doing their job of enforcing the law? They didn’t make expired tags an offense, but if it is, then it is. And if it happens that when they enforce the law as the legislature enacted it, they find drugs, guns, open warrants, what are they supposed to do?

Brian Peters, the executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers union fired a missive at Choi during the press conference, calling the policy “absurd” and “a slap in the face” to victims of crime. “Ramsey County residents be warned: those that break the law won’t even get a slap on the wrist—they’ll get a high-five from the county attorney and be left to commit more, and more serious offenses,” he said in a statement on Facebook.

The disconnect, of course, is that this is a sham. Police pretensions to purity of purpose is nonsensical. They are not scouring the highways because of their passionate concern for expired tags or, god forbid, overly tinted windows. They do it in the hope that the next stop will give them a legit bust for something that gives them some credit, whether a headline, a commendation or, joy of joy, a huge wad of cash for forfeiture.

But is Choi’s refusal to prosecute felonies because they came out of some piddling sham traffic stop the right response? Granted, his purpose is to provide a disincentive for cops to indulge in needless car stops, particularly when they disproportionately target black drivers because cops assume that’s where they’ll find the criminal.

However, what about the guy stopped for some bogus purpose who ends up with an open warrant for a violent or heinous crime? What about the guy who has guns in the car as he looks for somebody to rob? Sham though the stop may be, should the stop net the outcome of finding evidence of a serious crime, what’s the efficacy of ignoring it and sending the miscreant on his way?

“It’s a tool,” [Peter] Moskos said, “like any tool, it can be misused or used appropriately. But to say you don’t want cops to stop people legally when they’re suspicious is to say you don’t want policing.”

“Police are supposed to be proactive,” Moskos said. “They’re supposed to be looking for trouble. That’s their job.”

The problem is that cops regularly abuse the tool, using a hanging air freshener as a good excuse to “be proactive” when they have no legitimate justification to believe that there’s anything more happening than a guy who wants his car to smell pine fresh.

12 thoughts on “Traffic Stop Felonies, Declined

  1. Elpey P.

    It’s pretty easy to imagine – or recall – scenarios where following through on this would be touted as an act of white supremacy.

      1. Jim P

        Unsolved crime is a problem. Just promote cops to detective, and turn them loose. They get a raise and drivers can air freshen and tint

  2. Mike V.

    “They are not scouring the highways because of their passionate concern for expired tags or, god forbid, overly tinted windows.”

    If you believe in the Broken Windows theory, ignoring minor violations encourages bigger infractions. Many people who have expired tags, don’t have valid driver’s licenses, or valid insurance. Getting those drivers off the road or at least giving them the incentive (through citations) to get legal is a legitimate public concern, isn’t it?

    And using air fresheners as reasonable suspicion for a stop is a new one on me. But then, the thrill of marijuana busts wore off a long time ago.

  3. bmaz

    Heh, you ask the right questions. It sounds like a great idea, but…. For one thing, would it really put a dent in police doing such stops? Would it really prevent them from demanding obtrusive searches, especially of minorities? I’d hazard a guess that it would not. And when they do, and the big crime is found, how can a prosecutor blithely ignore it? Cops are gonna cop.

    Yes, I know those are mostly questions, but germane ones. Good to see the local police union people predictably scorching earth though. Also, the annoying pick out the _____ Captcha is back. That is regrettable.

    1. Charles

      ReCAPTCHA only presents the boxes when it thinks you are a robot. When you went to post, it thought you looked suspicious, so it displayed the boxes. It’s like a sobriety test for commenters.

  4. B. McLeod

    Choi obviously has some problems trying to hit the long ball when it comes to logic. All his policy does is interfere with police who are using pretextual stops as a mechanism to pan for felonies. It doesn’t prevent Officer Fife from continuing to make the stops, and it doesn’t prevent the motorist being killed in the course of that if Officer Fife feels threatened. It just means the dead motorist won’t be charged with a felony (which is also pretty much how things have always worked).

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