In Wake of Beating Death of Tyre Nichols, SB 50 Attempts to Limit Use of Minor Pretext Stops

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Sacramento, CA – Cities like Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, not to mention others, have taken steps to curtail pretext stops by police—the ability to use minor, non-safety-related traffic infractions to conduct racially-biased pretextual stops.  If SB 50, introduced Monday by Senator Steven Bradford, is passed, it would prohibit a peace officer from initiating a traffic stop for a low-level violation, unless there is a separate, independent reason.

“We have seen far too many times how traffic stops can rapidly escalate and turn deadly. In this day and age, there’s no reason why Californians should be stopped and potentially subjected to brutality or dehumanization because of an expired license plate,” said Bradford. “This legislation will reduce the potential for more harm to innocent members of the public.”

SB 50 would limit law enforcement’s ability to use minor, non-safety-related traffic infractions to conduct what are often racially-biased, pretextual stops. It will also provide technical clarification to ensure that cities and counties in California have sufficient flexibility to explore non-law enforcement approaches to traffic safety.

“SB 50 will especially help to protect Californians of color from unnecessary harm and ensure that law enforcement has more time to focus on community safety by preventing and solving serious crimes,” said Bradford. “The data clearly backs up the need for this legislation. Black Californians are far more likely to be targeted by police. Passing SB 50 will also help to reduce the risk of harm to law enforcement officers by limiting the need for one of the most dangerous elements of their job.”

A 2022 study by Catalyst California and ACLU SoCal found that instead of addressing community concerns about serious crime, sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles and Riverside counties spend nearly 9 out of every 10 hours on stops initiated by officers rather than responding to calls for help. Among those officer-initiated stops, approximately 80 percent are for traffic violations.

Additionally, in its report released earlier this year, the California Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board found that people who were perceived as Black were stopped and searched at 2.2 times the rate of people perceived as white. Overall, officers searched 6,622 more people perceived as Black than those perceived as white. Furthermore, those perceived to be Black adolescents between 15 to 17 years old were searched at nearly six times the rate of those perceived as white youth.

In the weekly podcast of the Vanguard, Frank Baumgartner discussed his research behind the 2018 study, “Suspect Citizens.”  Looking at 20 million traffic stops over a decade in North Carolina, Baumgartner and his colleagues found that Blacks and Latinos were disproportionately stopped, they were disproportionately searched for contraband when stopped, and that police were slightly less to find contraband when conducting those stops.

This finding has been generalized to other locales as well.

The Prosecutors Alliance of California in a release noted that in these “pretextual stops,” police will use various petty violations including expired registration and tinted windows as a pretext for initiating a stop to pursue what studies show amount to racially biased fishing expeditions.

However, “Researchers have repeatedly found that police search Black and Latino people far more often than whites during traffic stops, even though whites who are stopped are more often found to have contraband. Police are also significantly more likely to use force against Black people during these stops.”

Among the co-sponsors of the legislation is the Prosecutors Alliance.

“It’s time to address the harms caused by racial profiling,” said Cristine DeBerry, Founder and Executive Director of the Prosecutors Alliance of California. “Pulling people over for petty violations causes fear, humiliation, and distrust in law enforcement and the criminal legal system more broadly. It can also lead to deadly consequences without providing any added safety benefit.”

Other cosponsors include Catalyst California, Black Power Network, CHIRLA, California and the California Faculty Association.

“These routine traffic stops waste tremendous public dollars and undermine the safety of people of color,” said John Kim, President and CEO of Catalyst California. “Passing SB 50 would ensure that no one has to fear for their life because of a broken taillight, as all too often interactions between law enforcement and communities of color lead to dehumanization, brutality, and loss of life. Enough is enough.”

“These routine traffic stops waste tremendous public dollars and undermine the safety of people of color,” said John Kim, President and CEO of Catalyst California. “Passing SB 50 would ensure that no one has to fear for their life because of a broken taillight, as all too often interactions between law enforcement and communities of color lead to dehumanization, brutality, and loss of life. Enough is enough.”

“As a statewide coalition of community organizations advocating on behalf of Black communities, we are excited to co-sponsor SB 50,” said James Woodson, Executive Director of the California Black Power Network.

Woodson added, “Black people are disproportionately stopped by law enforcement, and most impacted by racial profiling that places them in potentially harmful and life-threatening situations with police. Shifting the responsibility of enforcing low-level infractions that do not pose danger to the public away from law enforcement agencies is an important step to limiting these interactions and reimagining what public safety looks like.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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