Recent reporting has uncovered a shocking but not unfamiliar trend: Police officers are pulling over Black drivers at a higher overall percentage than at any other time on record.
And in more than half of these traffic stops, officers are targeting Black drivers for small, non-moving violations that have little to do with public safety. Far too often, these stops can serve as intrusive fishing expeditions and escalate into matters of life and death.
Although the General Assembly has passed a law that prevents police officers from stopping motorists for having air fresheners hanging from their rearview mirrors — thus limiting the pretexts police can use to stop motorists — Illinois cannot stop there. It can and must do more.
One promising path lies in recent changes implemented by states, cities and even some police departments across the country. These jurisdictions have passed moderate but significant “driving equality” laws or policies that minimize or prohibit police traffic stops based solely on specified low-level violations, including things like recently expired tags, temporary permit violations, issues with single lights and other minor non-moving violations.
Initial assessments of these efforts (including in Philadelphia and Virginia) show they can succeed in reducing stops of Black motorists without sacrificing public safety, proving that maintaining road safety and addressing systemic racism are not mutually exclusive goals.
As we explain in a recently published legal essay, these measures have not passed without opposition. But Illinois is especially well-positioned to resist this pushback.
To start, the General Assembly’s recent action on air fresheners shows state legislators understand the need to protect motorists. If legislators can build on this momentum to enact meaningful state reforms, they will avoid any concerns over city-state preemption and other technical legal issues, which have sometimes impeded local efforts.
Make the case with data
As an easy next step, the General Assembly, armed with data, can act to prohibit police traffic stops based solely on the minor violations that officers are currently using to stop Black drivers at record highs.
Critically, Illinois’s data will also help to counter false narratives concerning public safety. Take, for example, the claim made by Illinois law enforcement agencies “they do not target drivers of color but focus instead on reducing gun violence by seizing weapons.”
The data belie that assertion: Chicago police (for example) “were four times more likely to request ‘consent searches’ from Black or Latino drivers compared to white drivers,” yet their searches of white drivers were actually more likely to turn up contraband than their searches of Black drivers.
In addition, saving lives by reducing needless traffic stops does not mean letting those offenses go unenforced. Instead, low-level offenses could be enforced by other means, such as ticketing by mail.
Illinois, like other jurisdictions, can further consider outsourcing all traffic enforcement to non-police entities, much in the way some jurisdictions have outsourced emergency response for mental health services from police to specialized crisis units.
Finally, if statewide reforms are not immediately feasible, Chicago and other cities are empowered under the Illinois Constitution to take similar action.
Recent reporting demands immediate action to address the continued indignities and violence Black Illinoisans face during traffic stops. With inspiration from other jurisdictions, Illinois can reduce pretextual and racially disparate stops while continuing to keep roads safe. It is time for Illinois to reimagine traffic enforcement and get on the road to driving equality.
Sean Hecker, Carmen Iguina González, Kate Harris and Amit Jain are attorneys at Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP, a litigation boutique with a commitment to serving the public interest.
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