State and Local Traffic Enforcement Reforms Gain Traction

In the wake of the national reckoning with racial injustice and policing, states and cities began re-evaluating their approach to public safety and traffic enforcement over the last year. Better traffic design and automated enforcement have been part of the enforcement discussion, but most recent proposals have focused primarily on assigning minor traffic stops to civilian, non-police agencies, as well as eliminating or decriminalizing minor traffic offenses often used as a pretext for stopping motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists. As states and cities consider and implement these proposals, they offer a preview of the potential governance, political, and legal opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for traffic enforcement reform.

While many traffic enforcement reforms are currently in the proposal stage, the City Council of Berkeley, California voted to become the first city in the country to move traffic stops for minor traffic offenses from the jurisdiction of the police. The move was part of a larger police reform measure adopted unanimously by the council that creates a new municipal transportation department staffed with civilian traffic agents with jurisdiction over traffic stops, and also requires written consent for police searches.

Berkeley’s establishment of a new department of transportation will have governance implications in terms of the structure and mission of the new department as well as its relationship to the city’s police department, who will likely focus on criminal offenses like drunken or reckless driving. The shift may face legal challenges over statewide limitations on the ability for municipalities to enforce their traffic codes without police. Such limitations in California and elsewhere might require state legislation to give municipalities more flexibility over their traffic enforcement approaches.

The city of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota passed a similar package of police reforms in May 2021 after the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright, who was pulled over for an expired registration sticker and an air-freshener suspended from his rear-view mirror, a violation of Minnesota law. Like Berkeley, the city’s police reform package includes transferring responsibility for minor traffic stops to a new civilian traffic enforcement agency.

The Brooklyn Center case has also led to renewed focus on state and local laws (like prohibitions on hanging air-fresheners that may obstruct a driver’s view) that can serve as pretexts for traffic stops. Last fall, the Virginia legislature passed a law prohibiting police officers from stopping a vehicle for having defective brake lights, excessively tinted windows, objects hanging from their rear-view mirror, or loud exhaust pipes, among others. The legislation also prohibits police from stopping pedestrians for jaywalking, or pulling over drivers with expired registration or safety inspection stickers unless they are more than four months passed the original expiration date. While these violations will still be illegal under Virginia law, they cannot be used as the primary purpose for a traffic stop. A similar bill is currently being considered in the Oregon legislature.

An April 2021 proposal by the District of Columbia’s Police Reform Commission recommended narrowing the Metropolitan Police Department’s legal authority over traffic enforcement, and instead transferring authority for enforcing minor traffic offenses to the District Department of Transportation. Recommendations also include initiating a review of traffic safety regulations to repeal or revise traffic safety laws that may be considered overly vague or pose minimal risk to public safety, as well as restricting permissible pretexts for traffic stops.

Similar proposals or recommendations to have been floated in Seattle, where the city’s inspector general proposed eliminating traffic stops for minor offenses like expired registrations, and focus instead on reckless driving and DUIs. A re-imagining policing task force in Denver also recommended decriminalizing minor traffic offenses that are frequently used as a pretext for traffic stops, moving traffic enforcement to a non-police agency, and investing in changes to street design to discourage unsafe driving behaviors. Other proposals to eliminate or re-allocate responsibility for minor traffic stops are also being floated in Portland, Austin, Montgomery County, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The issue of traffic enforcement reform has also caught the attention of Congress, with the first hearing of the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit in 2021 dedicated to examining racial disparities in traffic enforcement. That hearing focused primarily on the role of federal traffic safety grants in funding law enforcement, and the potential to strengthen federal programs that assist states in eliminating racial profiling in traffic enforcement, particularly through better traffic stop data collection.

As traffic enforcement reform continues to receive attention at the local, state, and federal levels, policy action has the potential to spark scrutiny and revisions to long-standing traffic law, expand federal assistance for new traffic safety approaches, and create new governance models for handling traffic enforcement. Collection and analysis of traffic stop data before and after implementation of these initiatives may help researchers and policymakers assess whether restrictions on pretextual stops or civilian jurisdiction over traffic stops minimize police interactions, reduce racial disparities in traffic enforcement, and improve traffic safety.

Revisions to existing traffic law can be an opportunity for lawmakers to draw clearer distinctions between vehicle modifications and minor offenses that pose a risk to public safety and vulnerable roadway users, and those that can be repealed or decriminalized with minimal safety impact. In addition to their potential jurisdiction over minor traffic stops, civilian traffic enforcement agencies will also require clear mandates to minimize unintended consequences or confusion over which agencies, for example, have authority to enforce parking rules or ensuring bus and bike lanes are not blocked by vehicles.

These and other challenges and opportunities inherent in re-making our traditional traffic enforcement model will become clearer as cities and states continue developing their varying proposals into actual reforms and legislation.

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