How pretext traffic stops fund police departments — and put Black drivers in danger.
This past Sunday afternoon, Daunte Wright was killed by a police officer while driving with his partner in a Minneapolis suburb after being pulled over by police for having air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror and expired car tabs. That this occurred in the same city at the same time as a historic trial for a police officer who killed George Floyd, another Black man, says so much about how deep structural racism goes in our criminal legal system.
Wright was stopped on what is called a “pretext traffic stop” — officers believed he had violated traffic laws, which legally allowed them to pull him over. After Wright gave the police his information, they found a warrant for his arrest: a non-court appearance that most likely was connected to an unpaid $346 in court fines and fees related to a cannabis and disorderly conduct conviction. As the police began to take him into custody, Wright became scared and re-entered his car. Police camera footage shows an officer indicating she was going to use her Taser gun, but instead she fatally shot him with her handgun.
This story is all too familiar — Philando Castile, Maurice Gordon, Ronell Foster, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose, and Sandra Bland were all pulled over by police for traffic stops, which included broken tail lights, failing to use turn signals, and riding a bike with no light. All were Black people taken into police custody as the result of being pulled over for minor traffic violations. The stops allowed the negative interactions to occur that ultimately led to the victims’ killings.
Yet police officers and organizations say pretext stops are a “valuable tool” to promote driver safety or to find drugs and other illegal activities. Car accidents are a serious and deadly problem, killing thousands of Americans every year. But recent studies have questioned just how much pretext traffic stops actually encourage safe driving or prevent accidents. A study last year looked at the city of Fayetteville, North Carolina, which re-prioritized traffic stops away from economic reasons like expired plates or registration, or investigatory reasons (when police use a traffic stop to gather evidence for a larger investigation), and toward safety reasons, like stopping drivers who were speeding or running a red light. They found that traffic injuries and fatalities were reduced, while non-traffic crimes stayed the same or were reduced, suggesting that non-safety related traffic stops do little to prevent accidents or other crimes.
As we process these killings, many of us are asking why, and how, does this keep happening? As a professor who has taught and researched the criminal legal system for the past 20 years, I believe we must examine the policing practice that allowed the murder of Daunte Wright to occur. When we do, we will realize that this policing practice is part of a larger system of monetary sanctions that seek to control and oppress Black populations in this country.
Most people break traffic laws. But enforcement usually comes down to skin color.
Traffic stops happen at the discretion of individual police officers — that is, each officer chooses who they will stop and what minor traffic or vehicle violation they will cite. During a stop, officers have the right to look for further law violations. They may search the vehicle, “run” the license plate number, and search the legal histories of everyone in the car to see if the vehicle is appropriately registered, or if anyone has court-issued arrest warrants. The officers have complete discretion to write citations or give warnings, give the vehicle driver fines and fees, and to make arrests. Essentially, police officers can use pretext traffic stops to fish for minor citations or for more serious warrants connected to drivers and their passengers.
The problem with pretext traffic stops is that when police use their discretion to decide who to pull over, they disproportionately pull over Black drivers more than white drivers, particularly within predominantly Black communities. As a result, Black drivers are searched 1.5 to 2 times as often as white drivers. The practice of pretext traffic stops allows police to surveil communities of color, over-patrol them, and pull people over.
These stops lead to frequent negative encounters between members of the Black community and the police that can result in violence, trauma, and even death. For example, a Washington Post article from 2015 reported that as a result of traffic stops, in one year, 100 people were killed by the police across the US. Of these people, 1 in 3 were Black. While white, Black, and Latino people had the same rate of being killed in these stops, Black drivers had a much higher rate of being pulled over. These regular interactions of being pulled over by the police lead to the terms “driving while Black,” and “the talk” that many Black families have with their children about what to do when pulled over by the police.
To understand why these traffic stops are allowed, we need to look at the broader picture of the criminal legal system that is reliant on these infractions as a source of funding. A key mechanism embedded within the criminal legal system, and related to pretext traffic stops, is the system of monetary sanctions, or punishments that require payment. This system is comprised of fines, fees, restitution, and costs sentenced to people at the same time they are convicted and sent to jail or prison. Just like a jail or probation sentence, all monetary sanctions must be paid in full in order for a person to be released from court supervision. In many states, until all costs are paid, people are unable to vote and must remain in constant communication with court officials about their living and financial arrangements.
Since the 1990s, state and local jurisdictions have expanded the types and costs of fees and fines sentenced to people convicted of traffic violations, juvenile, misdemeanor, and felony offenses. The massive expansion of the criminal legal system — the number of people incarcerated in the United States has grown 500 percent over the last 40 years — is connected to cities, counties, and states that faced economic shortfalls. Jurisdictions simply cannot afford the costs related to policing, detention, prosecution, conviction, and related punishments.
As a result, policymakers turned to the very people convicted, to pay for the costs of their own processing and incarceration. Statutes were created that mandated some costs. For example, Washington state has a mandatory victim penalty assessment (even if there’s no victim) that must be charged for each misdemeanor ($250) and felony conviction ($500). These laws also give judges discretion to sentence fines and costs related to DNA collection, court processing, jury, prosecution, and defense (for example, public defenders appointed because someone cannot afford a private attorney) — with interest, per-payment fees, and non-payment penalties.
For those who are too poor to pay, these legal financial obligations become penal debt that hangs like a cloud over their families’ lives.
It all comes down to money
When people cannot pay, they are tethered to the legal system in perpetuity. When people cannot pay, their credit is negatively affected and their ability to obtain and maintain housing and employment is disrupted. When people cannot pay, their driver’s licenses are suspended and they cannot legally drive to work or take children to school or child care. When people cannot pay, they may not be able to keep up maintenance, insurance, or registration on their cars, which, in turn, can result in more monetary sanctions and even incarceration, and the cycle continues — unless, in the darkest possible outcome, it’s stopped short by a fatal encounter.
In 2021, cities and counties use these monetary sanctions across the nation to generate revenue for operating the criminal legal system and more. Local governments rely on these costs, much like property and sales taxes, to fund local services. For example, states are suing formerly incarcerated people and mandating they pay for their room and board. Some jurisdictions are threatening to garnish Covid-19 relief payments for unpaid monetary sanctions. States even impose monetary sanctions on people whose sole source of income is federal Social Security benefits.
So when it comes to pretext traffic stops, police have become a kind of tax collector — the traffic stops allow police to generate profits, either via doling out traffic citations or in patrolling for people with warrants. It is important to note that often bench warrants are related to people not paying their fines and fees. In court observations while researching my book, I saw courts regularly issuing warrants for people who owed court debt but failed to appear. Furthermore, recent research found that many people did not receive the notices due to being unhoused or because the court had the wrong address. And, right or wrong, many times people fail to appear in court out of fear of being incarcerated, missing employment, or not having child care. Just because a warrant is issued does not mean that a person has been or will be dangerous.
Ending policing for profit
Pretext stops by police have become a practice of policing for profit. This practice has become a form of social control and surveillance of poor people and, disproportionately, Black people. As a result, one of the leading causes of death for young Black men is being killed by the police. A recent study found that young Black men have a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by the police, compared to white men, who have a 1 in 2,000 likelihood. Pretext traffic stops, coupled with the system of monetary sanctions, allow for these outcomes. The pretext stops set the stage for morbid scenarios such as the one we woke up to last week.
We can hashtag, march, and tweet all we want — but we must also make substantive structural changes: We need to severely limit pretext traffic stops. Law enforcement can focus on safety stops instead of economic and investigatory stops. Car fatalities are a serious issue, but it’s a problem that many of these traffic stops are not actually helping, and there are better solutions that don’t further criminalize, traumatize, and harass Black drivers.
We must also discontinue the issuing of warrants related to nonpayment of fines and fees. States must limit the amount of revenue that can be generated from fines and fees, and state courts must stop the use of debt-based driver’s license suspensions. Then we can at least begin to mitigate the harm of driving while Black, and begin to address one of the leading killers of young Black men in this country.
Police pulling people over for air fresheners, just to see what they can cite and find, does not ensure community safety. Instead, the nature of policing needs to be reconsidered and narrowed. We need to ask questions and have real conversations: How can we keep drivers safe without further criminalizing and profiting off of Black communities and those that are impoverished? What actually makes us safe? What does the public want from the police? What does “protect and serve” mean and look like? What is real justice? We must come up with viable solutions to ensure that people feel safe within their communities. No one should die because they had air fresheners hanging from their rearview window.
Alexes Harris is the Presidential Term Professor and professor of sociology at the University of Washington. She is the author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Punishment for the Poor. Follow her on Twitter @alexesharris.