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Vilified ‘minor traffic stops’ took 20,000 fentanyl pills & 188 guns off our streets
Dennis Wyatt 2022
Dennis Wyatt

A growing chorus of people are calling for police to stop making “minor” or “technical” traffic stops.

The assumption, of course, is that they are actually pretextual stops. That means they are using a traffic stop justified by a traffic violation to conduct speculative criminal investigations unrelated to the motorist’s driving or for the purpose of enforcing the traffic code.

The reasoning behind the call for such a ban is there have been minor traffic stops that have escalated into situations where those pulled over have ended up being beaten or have died when situations have gotten out of control.

In a number of those cases, the person was not wanted for a crime nor had they committed any other crime detected in the process of the traffic stop such as an  illegal gun or drugs in the illegal vehicle.

Yes, resisting arrest is a crime assuming certain thresholds have been met.

Yes, there are bad cops out there.

Yes, based on past interactions and incidents those being pulled over may have a reasonable fear their life is in jeopardy.

Yes, the same goes for officers when it comes to reacting to what unfolds.

Yes, one life lost at the hands of a police officer that oversteps in the manner in which an individual  is detained is one too many.

Yes, one police officer’s life lost at the hands of a criminal is one too many.

That said, it takes two to tango.

This does not sugarcoat data that contends there are a disproportionate people who fit certain parameters — ethnicity, vehicle colors, or persona — that get pulled over.

But at the same time, it doesn’t ignore a hard fact.

Minor traffic stops have taken an inordinate number of illegal drugs and illegal weapons out of circulation.

A minor traffic stop in Ripon earlier year took 20,000 plus fentanyl pills off the streets.

Major traffic stops accounted for a large share of the 188 illegal firearms confiscated last year by the Manteca Police Department.

The U.S. Supreme Court in August 2020 held that pretextual traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment so long as police have a probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred.

That was in the heels of the noted Whren decision in 1996 when the high court unanimously “declared that any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop."

It seems abundantly clear from footage that was essentially a beating death of Tyre Nichols by Memphis Police officers was way over the line on a number of levels.

If the court system finds the actions of the officers in charge criminal then they should suffer the most severe consequence the law allows.

But demanding that police cease all traffic stops for minor infractions on the assumption it is actually profiling is as reckless as what officers in Memphis are accused of doing.

The basis of the 1996 ruling centered on the actions of police as well as Michael Whren and James L. Brown. They were driving around in what was considered a "high drug area” of Washington, D.C. Whren was in the passenger seat.   

Two officers dressed in plainclothes were patrolling the area in an unmarked car.

They saw a suspicious vehicle pulled over at a stop sign for about 20 seconds. The passenger was distracting the driver. As the officers approached the vehicle, it turned at an "unreasonable" speed without using their turning signal.

Officers pulled over the two for the traffic violation.

Upon approaching the car, an officer noticed two plastic bags of crack cocaine in Whren's hands. Marijuana laced with PCP was also found in plain sight. The two were charged with possession with the intent to distribute around 50 grams of crack cocaine.  

Whren’s defense counsel moved to suppress the drug evidence by claiming that the traffic stop was only a pretext to investigate possible drug crimes, without probable cause.  

The motion was rejected.

Lower courts affirmed the original decision. The Supreme Court — on an appeal by the defendants — unanimous agreed with the lower courts.

It is dangerous to confuse the actions of the officers in Memphis with what the courts allow.

The Memphis Police command has been unable to substantiate the initial claim officers made that Nichols was driving reckless and therefore required a traffic stop.

 What happened next has a number of tangents but the bottom line is how officers reacted.

On any given day police pull over 50,000 plus drivers in this country. That’s 20 million people annually.

It is the largest fashion of interaction between police and the public.

The Stanford Open Policing project notes that Blacks are more likely to be stopped and searched.

There have been 600 plus people that have died as the end result of being pulled over by police during the past five years. Each of the encounters started with traffic violations. A quarter of those deaths involved unarmed Blacks based on data collected by the Mapping Police Violence organization.

It should go without saying that police reform and oversight needs to be the highest priority possible.

There is a danger, however, if we take what is wrong with law enforcement and allow it to obliterate efforts within established and vetted  laws that are working to protect our communities to make them as safe as possible.

It is a difficult tightrope for many to  consider walking as even one life that is lost under the color of authority can’t be justified.

We can’t afford having police officers exceed their authority.

Nor can we afford police officers not using their authority properly and to the fullest extent of the law  to protect communities and uphold the law.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water only assures us a backwards slide into chaos, lawlessness and increased deaths.