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Ramsey County will no longer prosecute cases that stem from low-level traffic stops

The policy doesn't apply to situations that endanger public safety.

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office will stop prosecuting most felony cases that arise from low-level traffic stops — known as pretextual stops — that disproportionately impact people of color. 

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and law enforcement officials on Wednesday announced at a news conference this new, county-wide policy that aims to change the use of traffic stops that are not used in the name of public safety. 

Pretextual stops involve police officers using a minor traffic or equipment violation (such as expired license tabs or an air freshener hanging from a rear-view mirror) as a legal way to pull someone over so they can search for evidence of a more serious crime, Choi explained in a memo about the new policy. The stops can lead to a search of the entire vehicle and the person, even though there is no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.

The new policy says the Ramsey County Attorney's Office will no longer prosecute cases when the charge is "solely the product of a non-public safety stop or the result of searching a vehicle based solely on consent, without any other articulable suspicion."

According to the memo, a non-public traffic stop includes violations for:

  • Vehicle registration
  • License plate illumination
  • Muffler excess noise violations
  • Windshield prohibitions, like air fresheners or other objects hanging from the rear-view mirror or cracked windshields
  • Window tint or other restrictions on glazed windows
  • Headlights, signal lights or rear lamp violations unless both headlights or both rear brake lights aren't functioning

The new policy doesn't apply to situations that endanger public safety, or when a vehicle is stopped due to the vehicle being in a dangerous condition that could injure someone, the memo states.

Choi said in a memo that these stops "seldom yield to contraband," but diminish community trust and confidence in law enforcement. 

That's because pretextual stops have a disproportionate impact on people of color and those in under-resourced communities. 

“Traffic stops for things that pose no community threat, and which too often can lead to traumatic outcomes, impede our community’s ability to thrive," Eric Jolly, president and CEO of the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation, said in a statement. “This is not just a solution for Ramsey County and Minnesota, I believe this is a solution that can be replicated across the country.”  

In 2016, St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot Philando Castile, a Black man, during a traffic stop. He was pulled over for a broken tail light and informed the officer he had a gun, and Yanez shot him. He was acquitted of manslaughter.

And in April, Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter fatally shot Daunte Wright, a Black man, during a traffic stop when she meant to use her Taser. He was initially pulled over for expired tabs and/or an air freshener hanging from his mirror. She has been charged with first-degree manslaughter, among other counts.

"As prosecutors serving in our role as ministers of justice, we cannot deny or ignore the role we play in perpetuating racial inequities when we charge the cases resulting from these stops," the memo says. "Our office will utilize its prosecutorial discretion to provide greater protection to those we serve."

Related [Aug. 13]: Minneapolis police, city attorney will reduce enforcement of select low-level traffic violations

The policy was developed with local law enforcement, philanthropic leaders, residents and national partners, including Vera Institute of Justice. It has the support of five police departments in the county, including the St. Paul Police Department. 

The St. Paul and Roseville police departments issued policies directing officers to minimize non-public safety stops and instead focus on things that threaten public safety, like speeding, distracted driving and drunken driving, a news release says. Other police departments, including St. Anthony Village, Maplewood and New Brighton, expressed support for the new policy and plan to align their policies and practices with the county.

St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell on Wednesday sent a memo to staff instructing officers to prioritize traffic enforcement that reduces crashes, like speeding and reckless driving, the Star Tribune said. The police department is working on a secondary notification system that would allow the city to mail warnings or citations to motorists for minor infractions, the Pioneer Press reports.

"Our data show that most traffic stops occur in areas of the city experiencing higher levels of crime, which also happen to be home to our most diverse populations and many people living below the poverty level," Axtell said in a statement. "The last thing we want to do is add undue hardship to people struggling to make ends meet. Together, we've embraced a clarion call to focus on the most dangerous driving behaviors while minimizing the disparate impacts of some low-level equipment-related traffic stops."

The Pioneer Press reported in June that about 35.7% of traffic stops in St. Paul from 2016-2020 involved Black drivers, while Black drivers make up 13% or less of the city's driving-age population. Meanwhile, white drivers accounted for 40.6% of stops and made up 58% of the city's driving-age population. 

Choi's memo says the focus on Black and Brown people for non-public safety stops contributes to the ongoing racial inequities in the criminal justice system. 

The goal of this policy is to help fix that by eliminating the disproportionate contact drivers of color have with law enforcement. It also aims to rebuild trust with communities of color by addressing the ongoing disparities in the criminal justice system. 

The Ramsey County Attorney's Office says it will track all the cases it gets but are not charged due to this policy, as well as regularly analyze the data and make it publicly available to ensure efforts are effective and consistently applied.

This isn't the first effort to limit traffic stops for low-level infractions. As police critics push for public safety reform, police departments across the country and in Minnesota have started to examine their traffic stop policies. 

The Minneapolis Police Department in August said it would no longer conduct traffic stops for minor traffic violations, similar to what is laid out in Ramsey County's new policy. 

And back in May, the Brooklyn Center City Council approved a proposal to use unarmed citizens to handle minor traffic violations. That policy change was in response to the police killing Wright.

There was also a push at the State Capitol this year to eliminate pretextual stops, but it wasn't included in the final public safety omnibus bill.

Response to the new policy

While police critics and nonprofits cheered the news, Minnesota Republicans and others suggest it will lead to people getting away with violent crimes, despite the policy only saying it will involve non-public safety traffic stops. 

Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Executive Director Brian Peters issued a statement Wednesday regarding Choi's announcement:  

“Basically, the county attorney just announced his office won’t uphold the law and won’t prosecute those break it. That’s absurd, and is a slap in the face to victims of crime. Ramsey County residents be warned: those that break the law won’t even get a slap on the wrist --- they’ll get a high-five from the county attorney and be left to commit more, and more serious offenses. Reduction of crime and public safety for all should be our focus as the crime rate escalates – and this isn’t it.

Rep. Peggy Scott, the Republican lead on the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, also put out a statement:

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