Feb 1, 2023 - News

Bill would limit traffic stops to try to prevent police killings

Illustration of police lights shown through the shape of a police hat.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Police in Washington would be barred from pulling over drivers for minor issues like broken tail lights or expired tabs under a measure now before the state Legislature.

Why it matters: It's part of an effort to limit low-level traffic stops, which critics say too often escalate into violence — especially against Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people.

  • Supporters say the change would also free up officers to pursue more serious violations such as driving under the influence, potentially helping curb the state's recent rise in traffic fatalities.

The big picture: At a public hearing this week in Olympia, the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police hung over the proceedings, with the bill sponsor, the committee chair and some members of the public mentioning Nichols' death as an example of a traffic stop gone wrong.

What they're saying: "Communities of color bear the disproportionate burden of these traffic stops," said the legislation's sponsor, state Rep. Chipalo Street (D-Seattle). "This raises the chances that we are involved in tragic escalations of force."

  • A 2019 analysis by InvestigateWest found that state troopers searched drivers who were Native American, Black, Hispanic or Pacific Islander at higher rates than white drivers — yet white drivers who were searched were more likely to have contraband.

Details: The measure before state lawmakers would ban officers from stopping drivers solely for minor equipment malfunctions, as well as for most misdemeanor warrants.

  • Police could still pull over drivers who have warrants for driving under the influence or for domestic violence, as well as for car-related issues that affect safety, such as having a broken windshield that limits a driver's ability to see.

Zoom in: Several police killings in Washington, including that of Iosia Faletogo in Seattle in 2018 and Giovonn Joseph-McDade by Kent police in 2017, also began as traffic stops.

  • While the cities defended their officers' actions as lawful in both cases, they also settled civil rights lawsuits with Faletogo's and Joseph-McDade's families. 

The other side: Law enforcement representatives said that officers stopping someone for an equipment failure sometimes leads to the discovery of a bigger problem, such as the driver being under the influence of alcohol.

  • They said with traffic fatalities at their highest since 1990, lawmakers shouldn't limit the enforcement tools at officers' disposal right now.
  • Police groups support a part of the bill that would provide grants to help low-income people fix broken tail lights and other problems with their vehicles.

What's next: The bill is expected to come up for a vote next week in the House Community Safety, Justice, & Reentry Committee — but it's unclear if it has enough support to pass the full Legislature.

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