Abolish traffic stops and stop criminalizing everything

  • Daunte Wright, like Eric Garner in 2014, was killed because police escalated confrontations, even though they weren’t in danger. 
  • Traffic stops, for the most part, create needless confrontations. So are petty laws like the ones banning loose cigarettes and requiring a license to ride a bicycle. 
  • If we want fewer police killings, we should do away with most traffic stops, and a whole lot of laws overcriminalizing victimless crimes. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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The parallels between Eric Garner’s senseless killing by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo on a Staten Island sidewalk in the summer of 2014 and Daunte Wright’s recent death are striking. 

Both were stopped for victimless crimes, and both died because police officers unnecessarily escalated situations in which they weren’t in danger. 

And both present solid cases for two controversial yet “common sense” solutions. 

First, most traffic stops conducted by police are unnecessary and should be done away with. 

And most crimes should be treated as the minor policy violations they are, not grave offenses against the state or “the people.” 

Perhaps it’s time we stopped pulling people over for no good reason, and stopped making everything a criminal offense. 

Two police killings caused by the overcriminalization of everything

Eric Garner sold loose cigarettes for a modest profit. 

By reselling a legal product to consenting adult purchasers, Garner was technically committing a robbery of state tax revenues on cigarette packs. The victim, according to the government, was the government. 

Weeks before Garner’s death, the NYPD ordered a citywide crackdown on “loosie” sales.

That’s how quickly a neighborhood side hustle becomes a crime against the state. 

Garner told the cops that afternoon that he’d had enough of their constant hassling of him. The cops could have walked away and found him another time to arrest him for allegedly stealing tax revenue. 

But they escalated the situation because their authority had been questioned. 

And Garner’s “resistance” was deemed sufficiently threatening that Pantaleo used a banned chokehold to subdue him. Garner died, screaming “I Can’t Breathe” as his last words. 

But the interaction wasn’t inevitable. Banning the sale of loosies was a choice made by legislators, deploying police to aggressively enforce this rule was also a choice, giving police deadly weapons and various legal immunities negotiated into their union contracts is also a choice. These choices aren’t immutable truths, and they can be changed.

The traffic stop that led to Daunte Wright’s killing by police earlier this month was triggered by police spotting his car’s expired license plates. Officers later noticed an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, which is illegal in Minnesota. 

Once it became clear he would be arrested after the officers discovered there was a warrant out for his arrest, Wright foolishly tried to flee the scene. 

But just as it was with Garner’s killing, no officer was in danger at any time. Still, Wright’s “resistance” was met by deadly force. 

Neither of these killings were justified, nor were the confrontations that led to the killings. 

All crimes are not created equal. Selling loosies and driving with expired plates should be considered civil infractions, not first steps toward the application of deadly force.

We don’t need armed cops approaching motorists as if they’re crossing a checkpoint in occupied territory. In fact, we don’t really need cops to perform most traffic stops at all. 

And we really don’t need to make every violation of the law a “crime.”

Decriminalize minor infractions and end most traffic stops. Then see if society improves

A viral video this week appeared to show Perth Amboy, NJ, police arresting a young Black man for riding a bicycle without a license, which costs fifty cents and must be renewed annually.

Failure to comply is punishable by “immediate confiscation” and up to a $50 fine and 10 days in jail. 

What are the chances someone might forget to renew their bike license? 

Expecting the populace to be non-compliant is the point. It’s an offensively stupid law that will be largely ignored but occasionally enforced with the threat of force. 

It’s a pretext for police to hassle anyone on a bike. 

Petty tyrannies like this allow municipalities to use the police as a collection racket, shaking down poor people through needlessly high-conflict interactions with citizens.

And cops enter those situations as though their lives are on the line because of the wildly overstated threat of the “traffic stop ambush.”  

Yes, such horrible murders of police do happen, but they are exceedingly rare. 

A 2019 Michigan Law Review white paper titled, “Policing, Danger Narratives, and Routine Traffic Stops” came to the following conclusions: 

“The rate for a felonious killing of an officer during a routine traffic stop was only 1 in every 6.5 million stops. The rate for an assault that results in serious injury to an officer was only 1 in every 361,111 stops. Finally, the rate for an assault (whether it results in officer injury or not) was only 1 in every 6,959 stops.”

As the Washington Post’s Radley Balko noted, “An officer is orders of magnitude more likely to die of a lightning strike or insect sting.”

Officers are at far greater risk during a traffic stop of being struck and killed by oncoming traffic than by an ambush.

If police are no longer trained to treat traffic stops as the ultimate job hazard, and if cutting back massively on the number of traffic stops themselves, there would be far fewer opportunities for violence between police and citizens. 

And there’s little reason why — short of reckless driving like speeding or driving while impaired — that cops need to pull people over for traffic violations. 

If a warrant is out for a murder or someone’s fleeing an armed robbery and there’s good reason to suspect you’ve got the guy, fine. Pull him over. Presume the suspect is dangerous. Approach with caution and menace. 

Even if it’s not a crime, and someone’s driving around with a broken windshield or has a muffler dragging along the pavement, sure officer, please get involved.

But if a young person’s windows are tinted a little too dark or they’ve got a busted taillight, just snap a photo of the license plate and put it in the system. Mail a ticket. 

In the meantime, let’s demand our lawmakers — from the federal government to the city council — make the choice to stop passing laws, ordinances, and regulations that criminalize minor violations, which you can guarantee will be disproportionately enforced on low-income and minority civilians. 

Stop pulling people over. Stop criminalizing everything. 

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