The reason Brooklyn Center police pulled over Daunte Wright is unclear and largely irrelevant. The Department’s chief of police said the car he was driving had expired tags. His mother said he thought he was pulled over because he had air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror. Regardless of the reason, 20-year old Wright was shot to death by a police officer minutes after the traffic stop began.
Traffic stops figure prominently in some of the most high-profile police killings of Black people. We remember many of their names—Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile —but they are just a few of the many people who have been killed or died as the result of law enforcement’s expansive authority to enforce traffic laws.
Traffic stops might seem like a local matter, or a subjective police decision, but actually the practice is built on five decades of Supreme Court precedent, a set of decisions that has successively opened the door to — and given police an incentive to — use traffic stops as an invasive tool of policing aimed mostly at people of color, primarily Black people.
As a result, reckoning with police violence must include a reckoning with how U.S. Supreme Court precedent has enabled it through its decades-long campaign to empower law enforcement in the so-called War on Drugs. Litigators must continue to push the Court to revisit these damaging decisions with the goal of overturning or weakening the precedents that have put too much power and discretion in the hands of police. Federal, state, and local policymakers, meanwhile, must recognize that these precedents provide a constitutional floor for police behavior; laws and policies can and should be adopted to hold police to a higher standard.
“Driving While Black” is a tongue-in-cheek expression that describes a frightening reality—police can, and often do, find any reason to pull over Black drivers. Given the glut of traffic rules, police rarely have to concoct a reason to pull over any driver they choose. Their job as traffic enforcers enables police officers to pull over Black drivers whenever their implicit or explicit biases tell them that a Black driver is “up to no good.” Harassment, intimidation, violence, and sometimes death, too often ensue.
The Supreme Court opened the door to legally permissible racialized policing with the 1967 case Terry v. Ohio, by allowing police to conduct certain cursory searches, now known as stop-and-frisks, based on the low legal standard of “reasonable suspicion.” As our country’s experience with stop-and-frisk vividly demonstrates, however, for police, reasonable suspicion is too often synonymous with being a Black or brown person in public.
The practice of racially profiling Black drivers was effectively endorsed by the Court in the 1996 ruling in Whren v. United States, which decided that police are allowed to use minor vehicle infractions as a pretext to initiate traffic stops with the goal of investigating other possible unrelated crimes.
According to an analysis of over 100 million traffic stops, Black drivers are about 40 percent more likely to be pulled over than their white counterparts. This analysis also reveals that Black and Hispanic drivers are twice as likely as white drivers to have their cars searched after being pulled over.
Monday, April 19, 2021
Race and criminal justice
Closing arguments today in Chauvin. And you can feel the tension around the country as we head toward a verdict. Politico has this article saying that the Supreme Court is to blame for "driving while black."