Monday, February 5, 2024

California looks to discourage pretextual stops by police

As of January, California police officers are required to provide motorists and pedestrians with the reason for stopping them before asking any questions, reported the Los Angeles TimesUnder Assembly Bill 2773, which was enacted in 2022 and took effect with the new year, officers are no longer allowed to begin such encounters by asking drivers the infamous question, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

The first state-level reform of its kind, this law could represent an important improvement in relations between police and the public — just not exactly for the reasons advanced by its supporters.

The suggested impetus for the bill was to discourage so-called pretextual stops and consequently reduce a range of racial disparities in traffic and pedestrian policing. Pretextual stops are those in which officers stop a motorist or pedestrian for a minor infraction — say, a broken taillight or jaywalking — with the actual goal of questioning or searching the person to uncover evidence of a more significant violation or crime. While these types of stops have been deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, they have a history of being used to target people based on racial bias.

Although Los Angeles and other jurisdictions have successfully discouraged the tactic by directly limiting pretextual stops, California’s new law is not likely to contribute significantly to that effort. While it does prohibit California police officers from beginning a pretextual stop by asking a potentially incriminating question, it does nothing to undo their legal right to conduct such stops.

Even if the legislation falls short of the ambitions of its supporters, however, it does hold promise for furthering community trust in police by promoting what’s known as procedural justice. In simple terms, procedural justice is the perception of fairness in interactions with authority such as traffic stops. 

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