A law passed last year has now taken effect in California. This attempt to limit pretextual stops and biased policing means California law enforcement officers will no longer be able to start every traffic stop with an impromptu Q&A session. They’ll have to get right to the point.
Here’s what the law says:
(a) A peace officer making a traffic or pedestrian stop, before engaging in questioning related to a criminal investigation or traffic violation, shall state the reason for the stop. The officer shall document the reason for the stop on any citation or police report resulting from the stop.
And this is what it would look like in practice, as stated late last year by a California law enforcement official:
“This is instead of the officer asking a driver, ‘Do you know why I pulled you over?’” LAPD Captain Steven Ramos told the commission. “Now, the onus is on the officer to tell the individual why they pulled them over.”
Which is the way it should always be everywhere. That question has always been stupid. You pulled me over. You tell me. It’s not a serious question.
If the LAPD official seems receptive to this change, it’s probably because the LAPD has already made steps to limit pretextual stops by requiring something more than “let’s go on a fishing expedition!”
Under a policy approved in March, officers must have a reason to suspect a more serious crime is afoot before initiating a pretext stop, and they are required to record their reasoning on body camera before the stop.
The change appears to be having the intended effect. A Times analysis of LAPD records has found that in the months since the new policy went into effect, officers are stopping far fewer people for the minor violations that can mark the start of pretext stops and are conducting fewer searches during those stops.
Go figure. Requiring cops to actually suspect something before engaging in a stop results in fewer stops, fewer searches and… more contraband. According to the data, LAPD officers have seen a slight uptick in discovered contraband since the policy change, which suggests the quality of stops may be increasing despite the number of stops over small violations dropping from 21% to 12% of all stops.
The LAPD’s policy requires officers to tell people why they’ve pulled them over and document that on their body-worn cameras. This new law basically codifies that policy and expands it statewide.
Of course, there’s an exception.
Subdivision (a) does not apply when the officer reasonably believes that withholding the reason for the stop is necessary to protect life or property from imminent threat, including, but not limited to, cases of terrorism or kidnapping.
That loophole will need to be monitored closely. It can’t possibly be closed, given the reality of law enforcement. Suggestions abound — some tied to other traffic/pedestrian stop reporting mandated by the same law. But the way forward is still unclear.
It’s not clear who would decide whether an officer’s refusal to disclose the basis for a stop was reasonable; a state board has been considering regulations to require officers to tell their superiors, and the state, why they believed full disclosure would endanger them.
They’d better come up with some good excuses. It’s no longer a matter of breaking policy. This sort of thing is now literally breaking the law.
And, of course, law enforcement unions are against this, even if they can’t seem to muster coherent counterarguments.
In opposition, the California State Sheriffs’ Association argued that “traffic stops can be among the most dangerous types of interactions that peace officers encounter” and they should remain free to take immediate action without first explaining their reasons.
So… the union thinks cops can’t state the reason for the stop into their recording devices during the time it takes to exit the car and walk up to the stopped car? There’s absolutely no logic to this statement. If it’s a guns-out stop, it isn’t pretextual. This law is intended to limit pretextual stops and that’s what it will do. The CSSA’s argument is one of pure desperation — the kind made by people who firmly believe law enforcement should be treated as a law unto itself, answerable to no one.
This is a good thing and should be copied by more states. It will increase the quality of stops, deter exploratory stops and searches, and force officers to focus on serious crime, rather than poorly lit plates or dangling air fresheners. If traffic stops are truly “among the most dangerous types of interactions,” anything that reduces the number of stops is bound to increase officer safety, right? I mean, that’s what the union rep said. Better stops, more production, and a whole lot less hassle is going to work out better for everyone.
California Cops Now Have To Lead With The Pretext When Making Pretextual Stops
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