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Philly court tosses police union lawsuit over driving equality law

The FOP said Philadelphia was illegally preempting state law. A judge disagreed.

Councilmember Isaiah Thomas speaks during a news conference earlier this month about his "driving equality" legislation.
Councilmember Isaiah Thomas speaks during a news conference earlier this month about his "driving equality" legislation.Read moreJose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia judge on Wednesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by the city’s police union that challenged a law banning some low-level traffic stops.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, which represents about 6,100 officers, filed the suit more than a year ago, saying the city was illegally preempting existing state law and asking a judge to declare the ordinance invalid. The FOP also contended the legislation made Philadelphia less safe, and named Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw as defendants.

Common Pleas Court Judge Craig Levin ruled that how and when police carry out minor traffic stops are “matters of purely local concern” and that the mayor has discretion to decide how laws are enforced in the city.

John McNesby, president of the FOP, said in a statement that the law “allows reckless drivers behind the wheel of unsafe vehicles, which ultimately puts the public at-risk and in danger.” He said the union plans to appeal.

The legislation, which passed City Council, 14-2, in 2021 and took effect a year ago, classified eight low-level traffic violations, such as driving with a damaged bumper or a broken headlight, as “secondary,” meaning they couldn’t be the sole reason a driver was pulled over by police.

Philadelphia was the first major city to enact such a ban. Lawmakers and proponents said the law aimed to address racial disparities in police stops and cut down on unnecessary interactions between officers and motorists. Authorities were supposed to send tickets for the infractions instead of pulling over drivers.

The ordinance was accompanied by an executive order that requires the Police Department to share detailed data and records about traffic stops.

Stops associated with the targeted violations dropped by 54%, or nearly 16,000, between 2021 and 2022, according to Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, the bill’s author. But an Inquirer analysis showed racial disparities associated with those stops were unchanged since the law’s implementation.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia’s driving equality law reduced traffic stops but not racial disparities in its first year

In a statement Thursday, Thomas said the legislation has led Philadelphia police to prioritize traffic stops for more severe infractions and called the law a “national model for police reform and community progress.”

During a news conference earlier this month, he defended the legislation, saying it is legally sound and does not make the city less safe.

“Shame on anybody who tries to say that because we’re fighting for the plight of Black people that we’re trying to put ourselves in a position to make the city more dangerous,” he said.

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment.

The number of traffic stops in Philadelphia has dropped precipitously in recent years. According to police statistics, there were, on average, about 330,000 vehicle stops annually between 2015 and 2019. That number was more than halved in 2020 and 2021 amid the pandemic, with police pulling over about 150,000 drivers each of those years.