Community Health & Safety Police

Police ‘Pretext’ Traffic Stops Need to End, Some Lawmakers Say

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

By Marsha Mercer, Stateline

On a family vacation in Virginia in 2017, Democratic Maryland state Del. Charles E. Sydnor III was driving in the left lane on a nearly empty, unfamiliar highway when a state trooper pulled him over.

Sydnor’s wife and three daughters — ages 9, 10 and 13 — were in the car.

“Are you going to jail?” one of his girls asked.

The trooper said Sydnor, who is Black, had been driving too slowly. A new Virginia law made driving slowly in the left lane a primary offense, meaning an officer could pull over and ticket the motorist.

Sydnor, then 44, explained he was following his sister and her family in the car ahead and was about to make a left turn. He had seen a 45 mph speed limit sign in a school zone so had slowed down from 55.

The trooper proceeded to educate Sydnor on the law, saying the speed limit was 45 only if the sign’s lights were flashing, which they were not. White officers stopping Black motorists for routine traffic violations can have deadly results for Black men, and Sydnor’s mind flashed to how this one might go horribly wrong.

The trooper “had this attitude. It felt as though he wanted to show he was in charge in front of my wife and daughters,” Sydnor said in an interview. “I wasn’t disrespectful to him. He didn’t need to talk to me like that.”

The trooper let him go with a warning, and Sydnor was glad the Maryland legislature had recently defeated a similar bill, which he believed would have given officers too much leeway in deciding whom to stop.

State legislators, local officials, civil rights advocates and law enforcement personnel have grappled for decades with complaints that traffic stops unfairly target minority motorists. The George Floyd killing in May and demonstrations added pressure for change, and states and localities now are exploring new ways to reduce or eliminate pretextual or pretext stops.

In a pretext stop, an officer pulls over a motorist for a minor traffic or equipment violation and then uses the stop to investigate a more serious crime.

Police insist the stops are useful for investigating drugs and weapons possession, human trafficking and drunken driving, among other crimes.

But Black motorists, especially young men, have long noted how often they get stopped for petty traffic or equipment violations — failure to signal, broken license plate light, tinted windows and the like.

As part of the movement to curb police brutality, there’s renewed interest in reducing, or eliminating, pretext stops, which studies have shown to be racially biased. Police stop and search Black motorists more often than drivers of other races with little effect on crime, studies show.

Racial Disparities

Traffic stops are the most common interaction Americans have with police. On a typical day, police pull over more than 50,000 drivers — more than 20 million people a year.

“Police have enormous discretion in making traffic stops,” said Farhang Heydari, executive director of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, a public safety think tank.

“If you’re driving, it’s impossible not to break a traffic law — there are so many of them,” he said. “Police are always going to have a reason to pull you over.”

White drivers were about 20% less likely to be stopped than Black drivers as a share of the population, according to a study released last year.

The team of researchers from Stanford University and New York University analyzed a dataset of nearly 100 million traffic stops across the country over nearly a decade. White drivers, they found, were searched 1.5 to 2 times less often than Black drivers, but were more likely to have drugs, guns or other contraband.

“Black drivers were less likely to be stopped after sunset, when a ‘veil of darkness’ masks one’s race, suggesting bias in stop decisions,” researchers reported.

The federal government trains law enforcement agencies to use pretext stops in high-crime areas, and they are often perfectly legal.

In 1996, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in Whren v. United States that pretext stops are constitutional as long as police officers identify an actual violation of traffic law, regardless of their motivation.

However, states and localities can limit the infractions police can use to stop motorists and what they do during stops, and more are doing so, through the courts, by law and local ordinance.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled last November police could no longer pull someone over for a broken taillight or failure to signal, then ask unrelated questions, such as asking for consent to search the car for illegal drugs or guns.

The Virginia legislature is considering limiting traffic stop violations as part of a sweeping criminal justice package. Texas Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce a wide-ranging criminal justice package that includes banning pretext traffic stops altogether when the legislature convenes in January.

“One of the things the George Floyd killing and other instances have made clear is police intervention can be highly problematic, especially for minority populations,” Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat who chaired the committee that drafted the criminal justice package, said in an interview.

“Our legislative aim is to reduce the opportunity for law enforcement of minor infractions,” he said.

On Aug. 28, the Virginia Senate passed on party lines a bill to end citations for a broken license plate light, objects dangling from the rearview mirror, exhaust noise, tinted windows and the odor of marijuana — unless an officer has cause to stop or arrest the motorist because of another suspected violation. In addition, the bill prohibits law enforcement officers from searches or seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana.

Among the Republicans voting no was state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., who has practiced law for 26 years and has represented thousands of criminal defendants in rural Virginia. He has defended so-called driving while Black cases, but he said, “I don’t see it happening all the time.”

Still, Stanley recognizes the racial disparities on minor violations: “My son can have a graduation tassel on his rearview mirror, but other people cannot,” he said.

“I’m not for pretext stops,” Stanley said, but he thought Democrats shouldn’t have lumped so many potential violations into the bill.

Tinted windows, for example, “are a real safety issue,” he said, and it’s a problem when police can’t see a license plate because the light is out. He slammed Democrats as “hypocritical” for previously making primary offenses of holding cellphones or failing to wear seat belts.

A similar measure is pending in the House.

Fatal Interactions

Pretext stops can be fatal. In 2015, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Black woman, was found hanged in a Texas jail cell, three days after being pulled over on suspicion of failing to use her signal to change lanes. Her death was ruled a suicide.

The Texas legislature enacted the Sandra Bland Act two years later. The final version was largely a mental health and data collection law. Many policing provisions in the House bill were jettisoned after opposition from law enforcement groups and senators.

Sponsors vow to bring the policing measures back in January in a bill named for George Floyd, a Houston native.

Among its provisions, the bill would ban pretext stops and investigatory stops, often known as stop and frisk.

“I’m not saying it will be a slam dunk, but we have a better opportunity with George Floyd being from Texas and my district,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston, chair of the House Committee on County Affairs and a nearly 30-year veteran of the legislature, in an interview.

“People were sitting at home because of COVID-19, watching the George Floyd killing over and over on TV,” he said. “We saw a man die unnecessarily. It was unconscionable. People can’t get it out of their minds.”

But Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, which represents more than 30,000 police officers in the Lone Star State, said: “We will be opposed to it. We think it’s bad public policy.”

He cited a famous traffic stop case from 25 years ago: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was stopped 90 minutes after the bombing, in 1995. McVeigh was pulled over for not having a license plate.

“It happens every day — we find drugs, evidence of other crimes,” Lawrence said. “We use the traffic stop as a pretext. It’s a very valuable tool.”

Several cities and counties have moved to separate police and traffic stops.

Since 2018, Oakland, California, has deliberately reduced the number of police discretionary traffic stops by not stopping low-level offenders.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, a Democrat, last year transferred operation of the city’s automated speed, red light and stop sign cameras from police to the transportation department.

The Berkeley (California) City Council in July approved a policing measure that includes eventually transferring traffic stops from the police to unarmed civilian employees of a to-be-created BerkDOT transportation department.

Police unions and Mothers Against Drunk Driving oppose the change, and the mayor has said it could take a year or more to get the new department up and running.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, is considering removing traffic stops from police control.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, where Black residents are 18% of the population but were 32% of 2018 county police traffic stops, the County Council is studying the feasibility of installing automated traffic cameras to replace in-person stops.

“It’s a ready solution for bias in policing as long as the cameras aren’t deployed disproportionately in communities of color,” County Councilmember Hans Riemer, a Democrat, who commissioned the study, said in an interview. The switch may require state legislative approval, he said.

In San Diego, Jerry Sanders, the city’s former Republican mayor and former police chief, drew media attention in June with an op-ed saying, “Police need to stop pretext stops and the overuse of stop and frisk.”

“I was a cop for 26 years. I understand both sides, but I really think we need to be fundamentally rethinking the way we police,” Sanders said in an interview. “When you look at the stats, they don’t make sense.”

An analysis of 260,000 San Diego traffic stops from 2014 and 2015 found only 1.3% led to arrests.

“That shakes the foundation of what we’re talking about,” Sanders said. “That really does change it.”

Joshua Chanin, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, led the study. Police dismissed his 2016 report’s recommendation to minimize equipment stops and the City Council shelved the report, he said, but times may have changed.

“There’s a new chief of police, a new City Council and political motivation that didn’t exist four years ago,” Chanin said.

In Maryland, Sydnor, now a state senator representing Baltimore County, earlier this year cross-filed a House bill in the Senate to end traffic stops of motorists simply because their license frame covers part of the plate. The measure was enacted.

His wife was recently stopped in Maryland and given a warning for having clear vinyl over her license plate.

“I asked police and they said, ‘Oh, yes, we can stop someone for that,’” he said.

Sydnor is weighing whether to introduce a bill next year to change that law.

“Being pulled over for something like that?” he said. “It doesn’t fly.”



This story was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Stateline provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

Photo by Mike Von, Unsplash

51 Comments

  • Any law enforcement officer still posting on this site should consider stopping – completely. From Maj Kong to True LOL, every one of you, just stop. Walk away. Ask yourselves if you would continually post comments and provide information that used to be considered 10-29H to the Socialist Worker or some other far-left, anti-police paper or blog. At one time, this blog served a purpose, but those days are gone. It’s sad to see the majority of posts on this site are still from LEOs, especially LASD. Why?

    • T woke, consider the possibility that things that scare you may not scare other people. So don’t worry about it, you’ll probably be just fine, I doubt anyone here is going to reveal any of your secrets.

    • Truly Woke,

      You’re actually right about this. We’re never going to change liberal hearts and minds; they’re made up and supported by their commie BLM/antifa brothers in arms.

      Speaking for myself, I think the few of us cops posting here are just doing it for entertainment. I really do hate the gossip that some deputies post about execs and supervisors they obviously had beefs with, though. Why would we ever feed the enemy with such intel?

      The funniest part of this blog is that they appear to actually believe the pro-criminal, anti-police crap they post. And they think they deserve awards for their “journalism.” LOL

      • There are more LASD friendly towards WLA who assisted with information vital to the toppling of the Tanaka/Baca regime.

        The information provided was instrumental from LASD to WLA to the sleeping deputies and the public.

        Don’t bemoan sources when you benefit from them, especially LASD. Remember Pandora’s Box.

        • 924,

          Do you really believe any of the pissing and moaning department rats posted on WLA had ANYTHING to do with the “toppling” of Baca/Tanaka?

          Come on, bro. Get real.

          • If you never knew, you never will.

            Mind you I’m not talking about published comments after the fact either.

            Wink to witnessLA 🙂

  • The by line of this story says written by Taylor, then by Marsha Mercer, so I’m guessing it’s written by Ms Mercer. When it comes to guest stories published by witness la, clearly they’re not sending their best. This has probably always been the case but lately Witness la has passed on a couple of real doozies.

    Just like to point out that neither example given (the black politician getting pulled over or the Sandra Bland case) are examples of pretextual stops. Irrespective of Mr. Sydnor the third and the writer’s imaginings.

    As for the rest of it, I would almost enjoy watching the mayhem of de-enforcing traffic laws, except for the fact a lot of innocent people would get hurt. Unbelievably stupid article, congratulations Witness la, can’t wait to see how you top this one.

    • ” Gang and violent crime keep going up in the county, must be all those White guys. Four years running now. ”

      Do you just make these claims out of your paranoid head ?

      Here are the facts

      ” 1Violent crime in the U.S. has fallen sharply over the past quarter century. The two most commonly cited sources of crime statistics in the U.S. both show a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since it peaked in the early 1990s. One is an annual report by the FBI of serious crimes reported to police in more than 18,500 jurisdictions around the country. The other is a nationally representative ”

      https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/10/17/facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/

          • What’s your level of education? HS graduate? No way you’re a college graduate. A college graduate, most that I know anyway, understand what they read. Even though I usually don’t waste my time on cop hating morons like you I’m going to help you out, just this once.
            This story speaks about traffic stops in Montgomery County, Maryland. I actually lived there when I was young, just for a few years. That’s the county I was speaking of. Never used the word “Country” or mentioned “Los Angeles.”
            You’re welcome.

  • I once thought liberals were genuinely good people who just don’t think about things realistically. I no longer think that.

    When I’ve tried to point out problems with “guest writers” or information that was just wrong, my comments were censured by Celeste (it IS her site after all).

    I’m a lifelong Democrat, but there’s a reason cities controlled by Democrats are an absolute mess…and it’s undeniable.

    This site’s constant attacks on police are based on falsehoods while ignoring the glaring actual problem.

    https://vidmax.com/video/198197-blm-protester-stops-to-speak-to-a-black-man-in-his-car-gets-nuked-with-facts

    Truly Woke is right. I’m out.

    Good luck, Celeste. I hope all your hard work and your ridiculous dream of a society without cops, doesn’t come back to haunt you.

    I would advise other cops to stop posting on this cop-hating site as well.

  • The sad reality is every anti police movement or policy will only hurt poor and minority communities.
    Pretext stops have saved more lives than they have taken…and it’s not even close.
    So take them away.
    Cops are safer because they aren’t jamming good stops anymore.
    Gangsters get to kill each other.
    Sounds like a good policy.

  • I find it hard to believe Rep Sydnor thought he was going to end up a statistic as a result of his interaction with the officer. Unless of course he was going to resist arrest, flee, assault the officer etc like the vast majority of his culture who end up being a statistic. Hell he was not even issued a citation yet was offended the officer showed him who was in charge. Sounds like Rep has a chip in his shoulder like many in his culture that turn a routine traffic stop into a deadly encounter. When I get pulled over by a cop for a traffic infraction I know the officer is in charge and submit to his authority. I have yet to be “beat down “ or killed as a result of my interaction. But alas when blacks are pulled over it’s because they are black while I got pulled over for committing an infraction etc.

  • Rak: The elephant in the room is the following: Blacks make up only 13% of the US population yet account for approx 40% of all arrests each year nation wide according to FBI statistics. I wonder if that might be why there is a racial disparity in contact with the police. Naw couldn’t be. Must be systematic racism.

    • Good point!!!

      In a “high crime area”–that’s an euphemism, by the way–patrol officers race from one “hot” call to another in an eight hour shift, and at least one of those calls will probably have blood on the floor & body parts on the wall from some sort of just-committed violent crime.

      In a “low crime area”–another euphemism–there is quietude and a whole shift can go by without receiving a single solitary radio call. Being a Deputy up in Trinity County is an example of working in a “low time area.”

      A pretext stop in a “high crime area’ is sure to yield another, more serious criminal violation: a dead body in the trunk; a clock-radio on the back seat stolen in a residential burglary; a crack pipe on the center console.

      Exactly why pretext stops are made in “high crime areas”: some sort of “greater crime” is sure to turn up.

      The “fly in the ointment” is when a totally innocent person is stopped & treated like he’s got loot from a burglary in his back seat.

      Police state tactics; innocent people don’t like it; and I blame them not at all.

  • Taylor: Take a walk down Imperial and Willowbrook after the sun goes down and see how far your liberal views and white guilt gets you. I would say about a block before you become a victim/statistic. At least get some first hand experience instead of writing all that liberal crap they taught u in journalism class.

  • Ur right Rak. Better to let the serial killer or child molester walk then use the constitution and afforded tools of law enforcement to seek out crime. Better to wait and pick up the body parts later so no one is offended.

    • How many “serial killers or child molesters” have been found in “pretext” stops?

      Don’t forget: the purpose of the Constitution is to protect the individual from the Government, and letting the Police violate the constitution is not a good path to follow.

      • Rakkasan,

        You can stop now. Your false pretense of being a cop at any point in your life is completely bogus. Just grab another username and start over.

        • “You can stop now.”

          Nope, ain’t gonna do that.

          Absolutely not a pretense….

          I like my user name because it’s Japanese for “parachute”‘ and it denotes the Army unit I did my military time in; it can be Googled.

      • Rak , How many high power criminals have been found in pretext stops? Seeing how they’re used quite often in surveillance type operations, I’m guessing quite a few. Timothy McVeigh comes to mind. I know you like to look stuff like this up and provide links, so why don’t you check into it and get back to us.

        • “…So why don’t you check into it and get back to us.”

          Better idea.

          Let’s all do it together.

          Google “How many high power criminals have been found in pretext stops?”

          All together now.

          On your mark. Get Set. GO….

          • Rak , if you want an accurate answer you’re going to have to do a little more research than google one spacific quote. You seem to think linking to some limited google search is an argument, I’m not sure you know how the internet works.

          • Just saw this, you should love it. Bike violation in the middle of the night, guy from Utah wanted for manslaughter. Split when family bailed him, and decided finally to just give it up to me. been running a few years. It was a gay thing that really was an embarrassing thing for the family. Should have been at least a second degree murder beef when we contacted them but Mormons are a funny breed back there.

  • Considering the most prolific serial killer in history is a Black man, and more and more Black serial killers are being uncovered in recent years, maybe for the protection of the community more of these type stops are needed.

  • Again, forget serial killers.
    How many shootings, burglaries, robberies…have been stopped due to pretext stops?
    Too many to count.

    I’m sure once Taylor becomes a victim of violence or even property crime, she will wish America had a way to prevent criminals from carrying out crime…pretext…stops. Maybe it’s saved a family member who isn’t as ignorant as you Taylor.

  • A pre-text stop versus one done for a statutory and codified violation of the law? How do they really differ? One needs the other. In this state, the California Highway Patrol has primary responsibility for enforcing the state vehicle code on the freeways and in some local areas. When they pull a car over for say, driving with a headlight out, are they conducting a pre-text stop or trying to enforce the law and perform a public safety function? Can we really know what was in the officers mind at the moment they decided to DO THEIR JOB? If during the course of the stop, the officer should discover another violation (drugs, gun, bound children, body parts, etc.) I guess the officer should just kindly tell the driver not to worry since he’s only interested in giving him a ticket for the headlight. The other stuff isn’t his job responsibility. I guess it’s akin to state governments arrogantly and vociferously flouting Federal Immigration law by saying “it’s not our responsibility”. Talk about ass backwards reasoning and fostering an ambivalent “not my job attitude”.

    Any police officer can enforce the vehicle code as they are driving around in the community with the hope of ensuring people drive safely, obey the speed limits, wear seatbelts, stop at stop signs, allow pedestrians to safely walk in cross walks, etc., etc., etc. So as I’m understanding, the options are to not have police enforce vehicle code violations at all or if during the course of a stop for a vehicle code violation and they see another unrelated violation, they should ignore that violation all together? Genius! The police can adopt a fire department model and only leave the station to respond to calls when requested? Genius! Deterrence through visibility, timeliness of response and pro-active activity? Who needs or wants any of that?

    The more “advanced” an evolved society becomes through its continued refinement, tweaking and watering down of its laws, the quicker it erodes and devolves into chaos.

  • Rak: The Supreme Court has ruled that pretextual stops are legal. Do your homework. No violation of the constitution. I think Ted Bundy was arrested one a pretextual stop. Not too bad right. Point being pretextual stops uncover crimes that might not have been discovered. It’s called police work.

    • “No violation of the constitution.”

      It is if there is no valid reason for the pretext; hence, the interest in exactly what Dijon Kizzee’s vehicle code violation was.

      Did he do it, or was it made up to check out his visible Cooper Crips tattoo?

        • It sure is taking a long time, huh?

          What’s so hard about saying “action was initiated when Deputies observed violation of section——of the California Vehicle Code.”

          Then the public can go to their own copy of the California Vehicle Code, which is purchasable at the local DMV office, look up the section, and see for themselves whassup.

          The public does have the right to know, and that is a Constitutional right.

          • Lets’s get off this crap about the public’s right to know. The public does not have the right to know everything involved in every aspect of government. There is information deemed sensitive, classified, confidential, important to national security or part of an ongoing investigation. If you are so adamant about the public’s right to know, why are the identies of juveniles who commit crimes protected? It’s the publics right to know who they are is it not? There is nothing gained by putting information out too soon while an investigation is being completed. What about confidential informants? Does the public have a right to know who they are? The whole right to know and confront ones accuser goes out the way nfow in that case. Does the public want a thorough investigation or to continue acting like the lynch mobs back in the day? Does the media, public and pandering politicians care or take any responsibility for supporting and pushing false narratives based on minimal information?
            Information will come out as the investigation goes forward. Patience versus impulsiveness is the real virtue.

          • Funny because the beloved Max Huntsman who is the oversight was quoted saying he doesn’t like it when interviews take so long because then deputies and attorney’s can shape statements. Thank you Max, you proved the point of the sheriff. That’s why things are not released prematurely.

            So again, Rakkasan, have your apology ready for when the case against Dijon drops.

  • Barbara Ferrer who answers to the Board of Supervisors, said schools will not open until after the election. It’s not about science, it is political. Now you know why the Board wanted to oversee the County’s Emergency Response…. and voted to take the role away from the Sheriff’s Department because the Sheriff’s Department looks past politics and just handles the disaster. The Board harangued the Sheriff to release more inmates even and the threat to the LA Jail never materialized. They surged money to the homeless, to protect them from Covid, but again the threat to this population never materialized. Never let a crisis go to waist. Keep pushing your priorities in a crisis. But oh no thousands were dying in nursing homes and the Board dithered for months, finally symbolically appointing an Inspector General to find out why so many people died. Well let me help…. the Board ignored the obvious threat to nursing home patients, to focus on their ongoing priorities… emptying the jails and housing the homeless. Old people, their going to die anyway…

  • Rak: Are u brain dead? I will explain this too u one last time. A pretextual stop occurs when the police observe a violation of law no matter what the violation. This allows the officer to stop and detain an individual. That stop often allows officers to further their investigation into other areas. The Supreme Court has ruled it does not matter what the officer’s intention is as long as a violation occurred. Bottom line if the cops wanted to stop him to see his gangster tattoos it is legal as long as a violation occurred. That’s as clearly as I can explain it. If u still don’t understand I guess it’s a reflection of our current education system.

    • “Bottom line if the cops wanted to stop him to see his gangster tattoos it is legal as long as a violation occurred.”

      “…as long as a violation occurred.”

      Ay, there’s the rub; did the violation occur, or was it made up? And if it’s made up do you go ahead & charge for it anyway, thereby falsely accusing for a a transgression that did not happen?

      In my link up above the Mayor of Compton said she did not commit the violation for which stopped.

      • Hey Rak,

        You’re scaring these guys with knowledge of policy and procedures and they’re banking on that no one else knows. Knowledge is power!

        • It’ll be good, I think, if all this becomes a topic of public discussion in the next Sheriff’s election.

          Public discourse is good for the soul.

      • This statement sums it upnyiyr views…”And if it’s made up do you go ahead & charge for it anyway, thereby falsely accusing for a a transgression that did not happen?”

        You have not trust in the police, already made up your mind and will not believe any outcome or result that disagrees with your story of how events played out. Even though, I’m guessing, you weren’t there to see it.

        This is exactly why nothing will ever change as some folks will only believe what they want to believe and there’s no use trying to persuade them to see it any differently.

  • Hopefully this Larry Waldie can drive while intoxicated and visit massage parlors on his own time. Nothing personal Captain just stating facts.

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