New Jersey lawmaker proposes barring minor traffic stops to combat ‘driving while Black’

By | November 11, 2023
New Jersey lawmaker proposes barring minor traffic stops to combat ‘driving while Black’

But that doesn’t mean drivers would get off scot-free.

Under Speight’s “contactless policing” bill, officers could not stop most drivers for offenses like broken tail lights, driving less than 30 mph over the speed limit or careless driving. Instead, those drivers would find out they’ve been cited when they get a ticket in the mail.

The idea, according to the bill, is to cut down on racial disparities in traffic stops.

“According to the sponsor, multiple studies have found support for the ‘veil of darkness’ theory: as the sun sets and it becomes more difficult to determine the race of the driver, the percentage of black drivers stopped by law enforcement officers for motor vehicle violations decreases significantly, with a 10 to 15 percent decrease in many jurisdictions,” the bill, NJ A3603 (22R), states. “Often, these motor vehicle stops of black drivers are pretextual.”

That section of the bill is indeed backed up by numerous academic studies.

Speight, a Democrat, said in a statement her bill would protect law enforcement officers and the public by minimizing “unnecessary police interactions.”

“Contactless policing has several benefits. The average police stop takes about 15 minutes. With this legislation, officers will have more time to police crime,” Speight said. “… As a legislator and officer, I want to create legislation that improves policing in our state. Our team is actively working on this legislation, and I am open to working with my colleagues and organizations to make this a bill that supports mending the divide between law enforcement and communities throughout the State.”

Details: Under the bill, police would document the offense and provide video or photo evidence from their dash cameras.

There would be a “rebuttable presumption” that the person driving the car is the registered owner. That means it’s assumed to be true unless shown otherwise in court.

Racing, illegal passing, tailgating, reckless driving, using a hand-held cell phone, speeding more than 30 mph, leaving the scene of an accident and DWI would be valid reasons for police to pull someone over. Police would also be allowed to stop motorists for minor offenses if “there is a risk to public safety as a result of the violation,” if there’s an arrest warrant for the driver or a reason to believe the driver has committed a crime.

Context: The state Supreme Court has limited police officers’ power to stop people for at least one extremely minor infraction. In an August decision, it ruled a gun found by police in a defendant’s car was inadmissible in court because the traffic stop was initiated over a license plate frame covering 10 percent to 15 percent of the words “Garden State.”

What they’re saying: Rev. Charles Boyer, founding director of the advocacy group Salvation and Social Justice, said he doesn’t know much about the legislation yet but that he likes what he’s heard so far.

“At first hearing, it does absolutely make a tremendous amount of sense to me because a lot of these small interactions — which are either used as a pretext, targeting, bias, whatever you want to call it — often lead to worse things,” Boyer said. “And even when they don’t lead to worse things, just the very application of it all is disproportionate.”

But Boyer said he has some concerns, since heavily minority neighborhoods tend to have a larger police presence. That, he said, could lead to disproportionate fines on minority drivers.

Yannick Wood, director of criminal justice reform for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, took issue with the open-ended part of the law that allows police to make exceptions to stop drivers if they believe there’s a threat to publicly safety.

“Officers across New Jersey are three times more likely to use force against Black people than white people,” Yannick said. “I wouldn’t want a situation where a police officer consciously or unconsciously sees a person of color [and] perceives that they’re a risk.”

Yannick said receiving citations in the mail days or weeks later might make it harder for drivers, who might not remember the incident, to defend themselves.

Jim Sullivan, deputy director of policy for the ACLU-NJ, said he’d wait to weigh in on the bill because it “proposes a significant shift in policing policies that demands close examination.”

Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said he’s not against contactless policing but has some concerns about how the bill would work, including knowing who’s driving the car when issuing the offense. Colligan also noted that the bill would likely lessen police officers’ discretion in deciding whether to write tickets.

“Nobody has taken away our discretion yet, thankfully,” Colligan said in a phone interview. “We have the ability to walk up and listen to an excuse, listen to the reasoning for whatever the traffic violation was.”

State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), a longtime critic of traffic violation enforcement by cameras, feared the bill could turn police cruisers into “massive ticket-writing factories”

“A huge portion of the benefit of enforcement is you’re approached by an officer immediately upon the violation happening, where it’s fresh in your mind, and you have a conversation with the officer,” O’Scanlon said in a phone interview. “The idea isn’t massive punishment. The idea is education and compliance, ultimately. A change in behavior. Not massive punishment and revenue generation.”

What’s next: It’s not clear whether the bill will have the support to pass the Legislature.