By Paul Kiefer
When video of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota police officer Kim Potter killing 20-year-old Duante Wright during a traffic stop started to circulate across the country, Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) realized that the slate of police reform legislation that went before the Washington State Legislature this year had a noticeable hole. “We talk all the time about driving while Black,” he said, “and for some reason, it just didn’t connect with me that we should just prevent cops from using minor violations as a way to stop and question people.”
In a last-minute effort to build momentum for next year’s legislative session, Nguyen wrote a new bill—just one page long—that he hopes will curtail opportunities for minor traffic stops to escalate into arrests or shootings. In its current form, the bill only prevents police officers from stopping drivers for eight common moving violations, including improper turns, driving with expired tags, and driving without a valid license. “A lot of the work that we’ve been doing has been focused on police tactics and accountability measures,” said Nguyen, “but this bill is about trying to stop the confrontations in the first place.”
“If an officer approaches every stop with the mindset that they are looking for dangerous people, they will act in ways that potentially confirm this ‘danger bias’ during the traffic stop—potentially leading to deadly consequences.”—Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge
The bill is based on similar legislation that Virginia’s legislature passed last year, which lawmakers in that state said would effectively end the use of so-called “pretext stops”—traffic stops in which a police officer uses a minor moving violation as an excuse to detain a driver they suspect of a more serious crime.
The Washington state supreme court initially ruled pretext stops unconstitutional in 1999. However, in a related decision in 2012, the court backtracked by recognizing so-called “mixed-motive stops,” wherein an officer may stop a driver whom they suspect of a more serious crime if they have a serious, “independent” intent to also address a moving violation. The introduction of the “mixed-motive stop” effectively reversed the court’s 1999 decision, because disproving an officer’s claims about the motives for a traffic stop is exceedingly difficult.
Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge, who leads audits of Seattle Police Department tactics and discipline, told PubliCola that she’s aware that community members and officers consider minor traffic stops to be “inherently dangerous,” both for the officer conducting the stop and for the driver, and particularly for drivers of color. “Given the significant concerns all around, it begs the question why police continue to stop vehicles for low-level, oftentimes civil, violations,” she wrote in a text. “Is the inherent risk of that encounter devolving to use of force or a death worth writing a ticket for expired registration or a broken taillight?”
Judge added that while law enforcement may argue that low-level traffic stops are a useful opportunity to apprehend people with outstanding warrants, that argument also underscores the unnecessary danger of the practice. “If an officer approaches every stop with the mindset that they are looking for dangerous people,” she wrote, “they will act in ways that potentially confirm this ‘danger bias’ during the traffic stop—potentially leading to deadly consequences.”
In its current form, the bill leaves some questions unanswered—namely whether the state laws prohibiting driving without a license or driving with expired tabs remain on the books.
But with only a week left in this year’s legislative session, Nguyen doesn’t expect the bill to pass in its current form. At most, he hopes it will receive a hearing in a Senate committee. “Oftentimes, the hardest part of working in the legislature is trying to raise awareness about a subject,” he said. “I’m hoping that setting the foundation for a conversation about traffic stops now will open opportunities for us to pass this in the next legislative cycle.”