Legislation could discourage some police traffic stops

Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 6:36 AM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Minor traffic violations in Vermont are being discussed by prosecutors, police, judges, and lawmakers. Are they an important tool in keeping the public safe or are they too often used by law enforcement as a pretext to find further evidence of wrongdoing?

Traffic in most of Burlington moves relatively slowly with low-speed limits and shared roads making for relatively safe streets. Motor vehicle crashes in the city remain stable year to year even as the Burlington Police have changed their posture on some traffic stops.

“Diminishing the number of traffic stops did not create a commensurate increase in traffic crashes,” said Burlington Police Acting Chief Jon Murad.

He says stops have dropped dramatically over the last five years, from 3,500 to less than 700 last year. “Traffic stops that are done for anything other than a public safety reason are not something we want to prioritize our time doing.”

Non-public safety stops could mean having a taillight out, having something hanging from your rearview mirror, or a license plate that is covered. Some of those stops made by police statewide are seen as contributing to racial disparities in the data.

“We know from a lot of research that there is much greater suspicion of people of color, there are negative stereotypes about criminality,” said Stephanie Seguino, a UVM professor and independent researcher who analyzes Vermont traffic stop data. Her work has been cited in policy decisions and judges’ orders. She says stops among all races fell dramatically statewide in 2020 -- 40% overall -- from the previous year and that racial disparities also declined in arrest and search rates. Still, Black drivers are nearly three times more likely to be searched than white drivers.

“I am guilty of thinking Vermont is different in a lot of those ways,” said Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George. She recently sent a memo that her office may decline to prosecute those cases where incriminating evidence -- often drug-related -- was found during a non-public safety or “pretext” stop involving a minor traffic violation. “We’ve had these conversations with defense attorneys and judges for years about pre-textual stops and they’ve always had a somewhat negative connotation to them.”

A recent order issued by Judge Michael Kupersmith in Franklin County highlights a number of cases where a driver was pulled over on a minor traffic infraction and then had any further charges dismissed on appeal because the evidence didn’t warrant the person to be stopped in the first place. George says she wants to be sure those kinds of cases don’t make it to the courtroom. “The vast majority of them don’t discover any evidence of another crime, so they’re actually just policing -- they’re really just over-policing folks for low-level offenses,” she said.

There are rare occasions, according to George, where a “non-public” safety stop can lead to a more serious crime like a DUI. She says if there are reasons to charge it, her office will review the case and move forward.

But a policy that largely directs police not to enforce minor traffic violations may not work in other communities. “At this point, it’s not something we’re looking to adopt in Washington County,” said Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault. He says given Vermont’s rate of traffic deaths and record overdose numbers, he does not want to see less enforcement. He says his office doesn’t see many cases involving cops using a pretext for stops but that his prosecutors will continue to review cases for any evidence of police overreach. “I think it’s important that law enforcement continue to enforce the laws on the books and prosecutors make good decisions on sound judgment.”

Murad acknowledges that pulling cars over is a police tactic to look for other crimes but that it can erode community trust without having much impact on public safety. He says he has never told officers not to enforce traffic laws and that stops are still made when there is a reason for it. “I believe that using a traffic violation -- even one that is not necessarily a public safety violation but is instead a traffic violation of a lower order, when we have specific reason to be looking at that driver and that vehicle -- is a valid use of our law enforcement powers and has a valid law enforcement objective,” he said.

But that could be harder with a bill under consideration in the Legislature. H.635 designates some of those minor motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic violations as secondary offenses, meaning police could only enforce violations if they first saw someone committing a more significant offense. Representative Hal Colston, D-Winooski, one of the bill’s sponsors, says it would allow police to focus more on actual threats to public safety and also help move the needle on racial equity in the state. “These kinds of bills really improve the quality of life for Vermonters and I think that’s something we need to take care of,” he said.

The bill is in the House Judiciary Committee and will likely be seen by the House Transportation Committee as well. Lawmakers say focusing on racial disparities is a priority this session.

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