Sean Collins Walsh, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 2021
Philadelphia on Thursday approved groundbreaking legislation that will bar its police officers from pulling over drivers for low-level motor vehicle offenses like broken taillights, a long-standing law enforcement tool that critics said led to Black motorists being stopped at disproportionate rates.
With a 14-2 vote, City Council passed the Driving Equality Bill, which details seven offenses — including improperly displayed registration or emission stickers — as “secondary violations” that cannot be the sole reason for police to pull over a driver. Instead, officers can issue citations for those infractions that will be mailed to drivers. The legislation will take effect 120 days after Mayor Jim Kenney signs it, which he is expected to do in the coming days.
In doing so, Philadelphia became the first large U.S. city to ban the use of so-called pretextual stops for low-level infractions, a practice that police departments have not only permitted, but encouraged for years to enable officers to potentially search the cars of drivers they suspected of carrying illegal drugs or weapons. Instead, critics say, it led to motorists being unfairly stopped and searched for what’s become known as driving while Black.
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.
In Philadelphia, Black drivers accounted for 72% of those stopped for vehicle code violations by police officers during the one-year period ending in September 2019 — despite African Americans making up only 43% of the city’s population, according to Thomas’ office. When those stops result in searches, police find illegal drugs or guns less than 1% of the time, with Black drivers 34% less likely than white drivers to be caught with illegal items, the councilmember’s office said.
Council also approved a separate bill by Thomas that will require the city to collect and publish data on traffic stops, including information about the demographics of the drivers and their passengers, the stated reasons for conducting the traffic stops, the time and location of the stops, and the police actions taken during them.