Philadelphia’s Driving Equality Law went into effect Thursday, banning police traffic stops for low-level offenses such as broken taillights and outdated registrations.
Philadelphia is the first large U.S. city to ban the use of so-called pretextual stops. Police have in the past encouraged these types of stops as a way to justify vehicle searches when they suspect the driver is in possession of drugs or illegal weapons.
Traffic stops have affected Black drivers disproportionately. The Defender Association, a group that provides free legal assistance to Philadelphians, looked at data from 309,000 traffic stops between October 2018 and September 2019 and found Black drivers represented 72% of recorded incidents, compared with 15% for white drivers, WHYY reported.
“This is something that is historic that could put us in a position where we’re addressing an issue that has been plaguing Black communities,” City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who authored the bill, said when it easily passed in October. “Philadelphia is leading the nation when it comes to this particular issue.”
Minor traffic offenses account for about 97% of police vehicle stops, the Defender Association study found. The group said the new law could lead to 300,000 fewer police encounters each year.
Under the law, drivers can no longer be stopped for:
Vehicle registrations expired for 60 days or less.
Temporary registration permits that are in the wrong location, but otherwise clearly displayed in the rear window.
Unfastened registration plates, as long as they are still visible.
A single brake or headlight out.
Other obstructions, like rearview mirror decorations.
Operation of vehicle without official certificate of inspection.
Unlawful operation without evidence of emission inspection.
Drivers may still receive a secondary-offense ticket for any of the listed violations if they’re pulled over for a separate, primary offense like dangerous driving.
The number of traffic stops in Philadelphia plummeted in recent years. There were, on average, about 330,000 vehicle stops annually between 2015 and 2019, according to police statistics. That number was more than halved during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, with police pulling over about 150,000 cars and trucks each year.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the local police union, last month sued the city over the new law.
FOP president John McNesby said the law “makes the city less safe.” He also pushed back on data showing that Black drivers have been affected more by traffic stops.
“We don’t go out and say, ‘Oh, let’s go stop seven Black drivers today, or seven Asian drivers, or seven white drivers,’” he said. “We go out there to stop illegal cars. That’s what we’re trained to do.”
City spokesperson Joy Huertas said that the law “does not jeopardize public safety” and that the FOP “distorts the text and purpose” of it. She added that the city doesn’t expect the suit to affect officers’ enforcement of the law on the road.