Pretextual traffic stops involve police using a minor traffic stop or vehicle equipment violation as a legal way to stop vehicles so they can search for evidence of a more serious offense. The Ramsey County attorneys’ office recently announced that it will stop prosecution of felony cases that came from these traffic stops.
Police make pretextual stops for minor offenses such as expired license tabs or an air freshener hanging from a rear-view mirror as an excuse to stop a vehicle and search for evidence of a criminal offense. A search related to these stops can ultimately require a criminal defense because it may cover the entire vehicle or its occupants even though there is no suspicion of criminal conduct.
The County attorney said that pretextual stops rarely produce contraband. However, they disproportionately affect people of color or residents of under-resource communities. These stops also reduce community trust and confidence in the police.
In 2016, a St. Anthony police officer fatally shot Philando Castille, a Black driver, during a traffic stop for a broken taillight. He told the officer that he had a gun before he was shot. The police officer was later acquitted.
The County Attorney’s Office will stop prosecuting cases if the charge is the sole result of a non-public traffic safety stop or from searching the vehicle based only on the consent and without any articulable suspicion.
Non-public stops include violations for:
- Vehicle registration.
- Illumination of license plates.
- Excess muffler noise.
- Air fresheners or other objects hanging from the rear-view mirror, cracked windshields and other windshield prohibitions.
- Restrictions on glazed windows such as window tint.
- Headlights, signal lights or rear lamp violations except if both headlights or rear back lights are not functionable.
This policy does not cover situations that threaten public safety or if a vehicle is stopped because of a dangerous condition that could cause harm.
The Minneapolis police department announced a similar policy and that it would not conduct traffic stops for minor traffic violations beginning in August. The Brooklyn Center City Council also approved a proposal in May to use unarmed citizens to deal with minor traffic offenses.
The St. Paul and Roseville police department adopted policies directing officers to deemphasize non-public safety stops and focus on speeding, distracted driving, drunk driving, and other offenses that threaten public safety. Police departments in St. Anthony Village, Maplewood and New Brighton also intend to make their polices identical to Ramsey County.
Attorneys can help protect rights when police engage in traffic stops. They can also take steps to suppress illegally seized evidence.