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  • Writer's pictureLeslie A. Farber

Do Traffic Stops Do More Harm Than Good?

police car in side mirror

Traffic stops may be one of the most common interactions people have with the police. However, the recent fatal shooting of Daunte Wright by a Minnesota officer – who allegedly confused her gun for her Taser after pulling Wright over for an expired vehicle registration – shows how routine traffic stops can quickly become deadly.

According to data from the Stanford Open Policing Project, roughly 20 million traffic stops are performed each year and 121 people were killed by police last year after being stopped for a traffic violation. Research shows that Black drivers are 20% more likely to be pulled over and up to twice as likely to be searched. While traffic stops are meant to promote public safety by discouraging unsafe driving and giving police the opportunity to identify more serious crimes, police reform advocates say the high number of killings and evidence of racial bias show that the stops do more harm than good.

Duane Wright’s killing also has drawn attention to pretextual stops, in which police use a minor violation, such as changing lanes without signaling or a broken taillight, as a pretext for investigating an unrelated crime. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that pretextual stops are constitutional, civil rights and civil liberties groups claim traffic stops like Wright’s are racial profiling “fishing expeditions.”

Some reform advocates have called on local governments to establish separate traffic agencies staffed by unarmed monitors to handle noncriminal traffic enforcement duties. Others believe ending pretextual stops and only pulling over those who commit the most dangerous violations could greatly reduce the number of incidents that escalate to violence. Technologies like red-light cameras and speed cameras also may help minimize the human element in traffic enforcement.

A number of states and cities are examining ways to reduce or eliminate police practices that disproportionately affect people of color. Virginia enacted new legislation in March that limits the use of common pretextual stops such as defective taillights, loud exhaust and objects hanging from the rearview mirror. Texas and Oregon are also looking to regulate traffic stops. The Oregon Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that officers must only ask questions reasonably related to the traffic infraction at hand and avoid unrelated questions about drugs or guns. In California, Berkeley is the first city in the nation to move toward removing police from most traffic encounters. A plan passed last year would transfer traffic enforcement and accident duties to a newly created unit of unarmed civilian traffic agents.

In New Jersey, the Department of Law & Public Safety has launched a Safe Stop initiative to help ensure that traffic stops are safe and lawful for everyone involved. All police officers in New Jersey receive training on traffic laws, the Constitutional rights of civilians and legal and appropriate uses of force. Additionally, officers must complete annual training on de-escalation, cultural awareness, mental health and implicit bias.

The department also provides information for the general public about what to do, and what not to do, during a traffic stop. The following are some recommended safe practices; detailed information can be found at

· Stay in your vehicle and wait until the officer approaches and requests your credentials (license, registration, and proof of insurance). Tell the officer where you are retrieving them from before you reach for the items, and keep your hands where the officer can see them.

· Once proper documentation has been provided, you may ask about the reason(s) for the stop.

· Drivers and passengers do not have to answer any additional questions, but you are required to follow the officer’s instructions.

· An officer must provide his or her name and badge number if requested.

· You can request that a supervisor come to the scene if you have concerns. If a supervisor is not immediately available, follow the instructions of the officer present at the scene and follow up with a supervisor after the stop has been completed.

· You and/or your passengers may use a cell phone to record a stop as long as it does not interfere with following the officer’s instructions.

· Nearly every marked police car in New Jersey is now equipped with a dashboard-mounted camera which must be activated during traffic stops. Additionally, many officers now use body-worn cameras, which also are required to be activated during traffic stops.

Keep in mind that you can file a complaint against a New Jersey State Police officer as well as a local police officer or department.

The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances

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