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Studies show pretext traffic stops are racially biased

A traffic stop is considered pretextual when an officer pulls a driver over for a minor traffic infraction or equipment violation but then uses the traffic stop to investigate the possibility of a more serious crime.

Police say that such stops are crucial in finding drug crimes, weapons possession, drunk driving and even human trafficking. But some drivers, especially young Black motorists, note that they are routinely stopped for minor infractions or petty equipment violations like broken license plate lights or illegal window tint.

According to Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, research has shown that these minor traffic stops unfairly target drivers based on their race. Moreover, they can result in dangerous situations for people of color. Even more disappointing, they don’t appear to have much of an impact at reducing crime.

Research finds clear racial bias in traffic stops

According to a study released last year, white drivers are about 20% less likely than Black drivers to be pulled over, as a share of the population. For that study, researchers from New York University and Stanford University examined nearly 100 million U.S. traffic stops over the course of a decade. They found, for example, that:

  • White drivers get searched 1.5 to 2 times less often than Black drivers, even though white drivers are more likely to have guns, drugs or other illegal contraband
  • Black drivers are less likely to be pulled over after sunset, when their race is less obvious

Are pretextual traffic stops legal?

In most cases, yes, as long as the driver actually committed an offense. In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that pretext stops are constitutional, regardless of their true motivation, as long as the pretext was a real traffic offense.

However, some state courts have ruled that police may not use pretext stops to search for evidence of a separate crime. The Virginia and Texas legislatures are currently considering banning pretext stops altogether. Other states are considering making traffic enforcement separate from other policing.

One analysis of traffic stops in San Diego found that only 1.3% ever led to an arrest.

If you have been pulled over, it’s important to find out if your rights were violated. If they were, the charges could be dropped. Call an experienced traffic or criminal defense attorney for help.