Nearly every South Dakota driver has experienced a “pretext traffic stop.” Police officers stop a car for a minor infraction, like a broken taillight, then use the stop to investigate evidence of a more serious crime. Pretext stops often lead to illegal searches, weak arrests and worse.

Most law enforcement agencies around the country claim these stops prevent serious crimes and help capture violent criminals. However, researchers continue to find evidence of an extreme racial bias behind these stops. Many lawmakers and rights advocacy groups call for state legislators to abolish these stops entirely.

Pretext stops create a dangerous situation

Police perform 50,000 traffic stops every day, making them the most common interaction between civilians and law enforcement. Farhang Hydari, executive director of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, says that “Police have enormous discretion in making traffic stops.” With all the complexities of modern traffic laws, few people can get behind the wheel without committing a minor infraction. When a cop can pull you over at almost any time for nearly any reason, biases will likely enter their decision making.

Hydari’s team studied data from over 100 million traffic stops. Their research revealed that police were 20% more likely to pull over Black drivers than white drivers. During those stops, cops searched Black drivers twice as often as white drivers, even though white drivers were more likely to have weapons or contraband.

Lawmakers seek to limit police power

Based on research from many similar institutions, many state lawmakers passed legislation limiting the impact of these stops. Oregon’s Supreme Court ruled that police can only ask questions about the reason for the stop. A Virginia bill currently under consideration would eliminate citations for broken lights, tinted windows and similar infractions. Should these bills gain traction, many of these traffic stops may cease, protecting the lives and rights of many people of color.

You can fight back against unlawful policing

If you face charge based on a pretext traffic stop, you may want to consult with a local attorney. A lawyer experienced with South Dakota traffic stops can build a criminal defense, protect your rights and shine a light on unlawful policing.