OLYMPIA — Traffic stops for a broken taillight or expired tabs would be a thing of the past under a proposal in the Washington Legislature.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Chipalo Street, D-Seattle, would further limit reasons law enforcement officers have for pulling over motorists. Officers would no longer stop or detain people for nonmoving violations, such as broken equipment, suspended licenses or misdemeanor warrants, unless it poses an immediate, serious threat to safety. An example of an immediate threat would be a shattered windshield that affects the driver’s ability to see. Under the proposal, officers would need to receive written consent before searching a vehicle or a passenger.
“This bill improves community safety while at the same time building trust between communities of color and law enforcement,” Street told a House committee earlier this week.
A number of other states, including Virginia and Oregon, as well as some cities like Seattle, have changed the law to stop police from pulling over motorists for some low-level traffic violations.
The proposal has support from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, which say it could help prevent discrimination against people of color, who are disproportionately pulled over for low-level violations. That sometimes leads to searches and escalations of conflict. A 2019 analysis from InvestigateWest found Washington troopers search Black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander drivers at a higher rate than white drivers.
Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, say eliminating the ability to pull over people for these violations could make roads less safe, following a year that saw the most traffic fatalities in state history. Washington had 745 people die in traffic fatalities last year, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
A House committee hearing on the bill earlier this week came just days after the body camera footage was released of the Memphis police killing of Tyre Nichols, who was pulled over for reckless driving.
“I’m lucky to be here. Tyre is not,” Street said. “We have an opportunity to improve safety for our communities and make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else in our state.”
At any given time, a driver is likely violating some aspect of the vehicle code, Enoka Herat, of the ACLU, said in an interview. But it’s up to officers who they pull over. That often leads to racial disparities in stops and searches.
Jac Archer, of the Spokane Coalition Against Racism, said a simple traffic stop can turn deadly.
“The fear and anxiety experienced by Black and Brown people when they are pulled over is absolutely commonplace,” Archer said.
Supporters say the bill would allow law enforcement officers to focus their efforts more on issues that directly affect public safety, such as impaired driving or speeding.
Research of traffic stops in Nashville done by the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law found no relationship between nonmoving traffic stops and crime rates.
The bill still allows officers to ticket for those low-level violations, but not if that’s the only reason the driver is being stopped, Herat said. Low-level stops are ineffective at stopping or finding larger crime.
“Why are we using our most coercive punitive enforcement and armed commission officers for these civil offenses when they can be used for the things that are actually causing fatalities?” she said.
Law enforcement disagreed that the bill would make communities safer.
Neil Weaver, of the Washington State Patrol, said stops for nonmoving violations can often lead to officers finding the driver impaired, even if that’s not why they were originally pulled over. Impaired driving was the cause of half of the traffic fatalities reported last year in Washington.
Jeff DeVere, representing the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, said officers who enforce traffic laws come into contact with more impaired drivers during nonmoving violations than they do for moving violations, like someone weaving down the road.
The Legislature is prioritizing traffic safety this session, with a number of other bills being considered to keep roads safe, such as lowering the legal blood alcohol limit and prohibiting right turns on red. Removing low-level stops is in contrast to the traffic safety goal, DeVere said.
“If the Legislature wants people to drive around with no headlights, no blinkers, no windshield, no fenders, no bumpers, absolutely no exhaust on their system, the Legislature should simply consider a bill to make that lawful,” said James McMahan, of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
There could still be ways to enforce the violations, supporters argue. For example, other states have started mailing citations for those violations.
DeVere agreed more needs to be done to address bias policing, but that should be done through education, building trust in the community and data collection, which is also required under the bill.
One aspect of the bill enjoys broad support: a grant program that would allow low-income drivers to receive vouchers for things like vehicle repairs in an attempt to prioritize nonpunitive interventions.
Archer said the grant program allows everyone to comply with these safety violations, even those who may not be able to afford it.
Law enforcement said they would like to be able to give vouchers for repairs as opposed to tickets, though they had concerns that people would not be as incentivized to apply for the grants if they were not being pulled over for the violations.
Democratic leadership isn’t sure how far the bill will go this session, but agreed that having the initial conversations and public hearing on it is a good start.
House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said there were a number of questions and concerns that came up at its public hearing this week.
Sen. Marko Liias, who chairs the Transportation committee, said he thinks the grant program included in the bill is one that likely will have support moving forward, but limiting low-level stops will be “the toughest conversation.”
Republican leaders also have concerns about the proposal.
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said the state should allow experienced law enforcement to use their discretion when it comes to these violations, while at the same time making it very clear that Washington will not stand for discrimination. That approach would be much more successful than simply banning the enforcement of laws, he said.
Spokane Valley Republican Mike Padden said the bill would be going in the wrong direction.
“I don’t want to be overly aggressive on minor things, but there are ordinances and things that need to be followed,” Padden said.