The killing of a 20-year-old Minnesota man during a traffic stop Sunday has drawn attention to so-called pretextual arrests, which allow police to pull vehicles over for minor traffic violations and then investigate unrelated crimes.
Daunte Wright was shot by a police officer Sunday afternoon in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center after officials say they pulled him over for an expired registration on his vehicle. When they approached the car, they saw he had something hanging from his rearview mirror, and after running his name they found an outstanding warrant. Body camera footage released Monday showed an officer shooting Wright as he tried to get back into his car.
No gun was found in the car, and Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said he believed the officer intended to tase Wright but shot him instead, calling it an “accidental discharge.”
Katie Wright, Daunte’s mother, said Sunday that he called her after he was pulled over, adding, “All he did was have air fresheners in the car, and they told him to get out of the car.”
“He called me at about 1:30,” Katie Wright said. “He said he was getting pulled over by the police. And I said, ‘Why you getting pulled over?’ And he said they pulled him over because he had air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror. I said, ‘OK, take them down.’”
Officials said that the officer who shot Wright was put on administrative leave and that a full investigation would be undertaken. The shooting comes amid the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer accused of killing George Floyd last year. It comes five years after the death of Philando Castile, who was killed during a traffic stop resulting from a broken taillight.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota said in a statement that it had “deep concerns that police here appear to have used dangling air fresheners as an excuse for making a pretextual stop, something police do all too often to target Black people.”
The 1996 U.S. Supreme Court case Whren v. United States ruled that the stops were constitutional, allowing police officers to use minor traffic violations to justify pulling over a car to investigate other potential crimes. As long as the police can cite a violation of the traffic code — such as going too slow or fast, changing lanes without signaling or not wearing a seatbelt — it does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizure, the court ruled.
In 2015, the Supreme Court went even further in Heien v. North Carolina, stating that even if a driver were to be pulled over for something that wasn’t actually a violation, the officer’s ignorance of the law would not preclude them from then investigating other crimes.
Farhang Heydari, executive director of the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law, said that the Supreme Court “has shown an incredible reluctance to get in the way of policing.”
“They weren’t focused on the costs — they should have been — but they were just focused on the policing side of it,” Heydari told Yahoo News. “A lot of what’s happening is not actually illegal, police are just taking advantage of the rules the Supreme Court laid out for them. A court that was worried about safety, that was worried about getting in officers' way, was worried about telling them how to do their job.”
This has led many researchers and activists to say that people are being unduly harassed and put in danger by police for “driving while Black.” A 2020 NYU study found that Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers and 1.5 to two times as likely to be searched, even though they “were less likely to be carrying drugs, guns, or other illegal contraband compared to their white peers.”
The study also found that Black drivers were less likely to be pulled over at night, when police would have more difficulty identifying their race.
A 2018 Georgetown Law study found that nonwhite drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers and more frequently subject to search. A Stanford study that began in 2015 found that Black drivers were more likely to be both stopped and searched, as did a 2019 report from the ACLU of Illinois.
Following Castile’s death in 2016, some neighborhoods in Minnesota began issuing coupons so motorists can have minor equipment repairs made, as opposed to tickets. Reformers, however, have called for the practice of pretextual stops to be prohibited completely. It has been in some areas, including Oregon, where a 2019 ruling from the state Supreme Court found that police could no longer use a broken taillight or failure to signal as a reason to then inquire about guns or drugs.
Others have suggested that police should refrain from enforcing most traffic laws to avoid the potential for escalation, including New York state Attorney General Letitia James.
“Piecemeal constitutional and statutory interventions that attempt to limit aspects of police authority during traffic stops are insufficient to address systemic racial and economic injustices in traffic policing,” wrote Jordan Blair Woods, a criminologist and legal scholar at the University of Arkansas School of Law, in a 2021 Stanford Law Review article. “Rather, these problems necessitate structural police reform and require a fundamental rethinking of the role of police in the traffic space.”
In recent years, some community organizations have set up free brake light and taillight replacement events in minority neighborhoods in an effort to limit traffic stops. Kaitlin Marone, a member of the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, told Vice News she thought of the idea after she was pulled over for having a brake light out, “a really traumatic experience with some cops in Florida.”
“It was horrific. Recently, it happened to me again, but it wasn't nearly as bad,” Marone said in 2017. “As I was changing my brake light, I realized it was extremely easy to do, and also really cheap. I thought, ‘We should just do this for everybody.’”
Opponents of marijuana legalization, however, say losing that pretext for further searches into unrelated crimes could make it harder for police to do their jobs. Then-Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., made that argument in 2017, citing a change in his home state’s laws.
“If you smelled [marijuana] in a car, you could search a car,” Kennedy said. “When it became decriminalized, you couldn’t do that.”
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