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Philly has become the first big city to ban minor traffic stops said to criminalize ‘driving while Black’

Philadelphia is the first large U.S. city to enact legislation aimed at curtailing the use of pretextual stops for low-level infractions, which disproportionately have targeted Black drivers.

City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas authored legislation aimed at combating the practice of police officers making traffic stops for "driving while Black" offenses such as broken taillights.
City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas authored legislation aimed at combating the practice of police officers making traffic stops for "driving while Black" offenses such as broken taillights.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia on Thursday approved groundbreaking legislation that will bar its police officers from pulling over drivers for low-level motor vehicle offenses like broken taillights, a long-standing law enforcement tool that critics said led to Black motorists being stopped at disproportionate rates.

With a 14-2 vote, City Council passed the Driving Equality Bill, which details seven offenses — including improperly displayed registration or emission stickers — as “secondary violations” that cannot be the sole reason for police to pull over a driver. Instead, officers can issue citations for those infractions that will be mailed to drivers. The legislation will take effect 120 days after Mayor Jim Kenney signs it, which he is expected to do in the coming days.

In doing so, Philadelphia became the first large U.S. city to ban the use of so-called pretextual stops for low-level infractions, a practice that police departments have not only permitted, but encouraged for years to enable officers to potentially search the cars of drivers they suspected of carrying illegal drugs or weapons. Instead, critics say, it led to motorists being unfairly stopped and searched for what’s become known as driving while Black.

The new law is likely to have a significant impact on the nature of policing in Philadelphia. About 97% of police vehicle stops are for low-level violations, according to the Defender Association. Eliminating those could lead to as many as 300,000 fewer police encounters each year, it projected.

“This is something that is historic that could put us in a position where we’re addressing an issue that has been plaguing Black communities,” said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who authored the bill. “Philadelphia is leading the nation when it comes to this particular issue.”

The U.S. Supreme Court approved of using minor traffic violations as a means for officers to pursue their suspicions that subjects had committed unrelated crimes in a 1996 decision.

But studies have shown that pretextual stops are disproportionately used to detain and search Black and Latino drivers, despite those drivers being no more likely to be found to be carrying anything illegal.

The debate over the policing strategy has gained visibility in recent years, particularly after high-profile police killings of Black drivers. Sandra Bland in Texas, Daunte Wright in Minnesota, and Walter Scott in South Carolina all died at the hands of police after pretextual stops. In the wake of such incidents, Virginia and a handful of smaller cities have adopted similar measures to the one passed by City Council.

In Philadelphia, Black drivers accounted for 72% of those stopped for vehicle code violations by police officers during the one-year period ending in September 2019 — despite African Americans making up only 43% of the city’s population, according to Thomas’ office. When those stops result in searches, police find illegal drugs or guns less than 1% of the time, with Black drivers 34% less likely than white drivers to be caught with illegal items, the councilmember’s office said.

Chief Defender Alan Tauber said Thomas’ bill will help to “reduce the vast racial disparities in motor vehicle stops by police” and is “a great first step to building more trust between our police and communities of color.”

The issue carries added salience in Philadelphia thanks to a related debate over the police practice known as stop-and-frisk. Thanks to a 2011 settlement in the federal discrimination lawsuit Bailey v. Philadelphia — which alleged officers illegally targeted Black residents for pedestrian stops and searches — the Police Department for the last decade has been subject to a monitoring agreement in which its use of stop-and-frisk has been closely tracked.

Police accountability advocates have been suspicious that, with officers facing scrutiny over pedestrian stops, they simply turned to traffic code violations to conduct widespread searches. That view was bolstered earlier this year when a leaked internal memo from a South Philadelphia police district showed a captain instructing officers to increase vehicle code violations, noting that they “give officers probable cause for a stop which avoids the issues we have with the Bailey Agreement.”

Although Thomas’ bill passed easily — the only dissenters were Council’s two Republicans, David Oh and Brian O’Neill — it faced last-minute opposition fueled by State Rep. Martina White, the Northeast Philly conservative who chairs the city’s GOP. White on Thursday morning emailed Council a letter arguing that the bill violates state law by changing the Motor Vehicle Code, and that adopting it could jeopardize state funding for Philadelphia.

Oh took up her mantle at Council, cautioning his colleagues against approving a bill he said could hurt the city.

“I am against improper use of stop-and-frisk. That’s unconstitutional,” he said. “Stopping vehicles that are violating the state Traffic Code is not that.”

Thomas and other members, however, said the city Law Department, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and other attorneys found the bill to be legally sound because it does not change the violations listed in the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code, but instead changes how they will be enforced within city limits.

“At no point is a police officer in the city of Philadelphia prohibited from enforcing the state code” under Thomas’ bill, said Councilmember Derek Green.

Council also approved a separate bill by Thomas that will require the city to collect and publish data on traffic stops, including information about the demographics of the drivers and their passengers, the stated reasons for conducting the traffic stops, the time and location of the stops, and the police actions taken during them.

Staff writer Samantha Melamed contributed to this article.