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Putting the Red Light on Racially Motivated Traffic Stops

By: Jay Patel

Blog Category: Racial Profiling & Traffic Stops

Putting the Red Light on Racially Motivated Traffic Stops

In the late 1990’s the State of New Jersey entered into a consent decree with the United States Department of Justice.[1] The basis: New Jersey State Troopers were using race as a means of discriminating among drivers stopped for traffic infractions.[2] The consent decree underscored a stark reality; police officers across the country were using race as a pretext to stop, and in many cases, harass minorities.[3] The question then becomes: How can we curb these flagrant abuses?

Several commentators have proposed suggestions which could be easily implemented and maintained.[4] The first proposal would establish internal police policies which would set forth standardized procedures that an officer would have to follow when conducting a traffic stop.[5] To ensure that these policies are followed, the author suggests financial awards or fines based on departmental adherence.[6] Another commentator has suggested that by either restricting or barring consent based searches race-centric stops will cease.[7] He would apply the Terry standard of reasonable suspicion for a stop and frisk as a prong to any motorist consent.[8] In short, law enforcement officers would need both the motorist’s consent and reasonable suspicion that illegal contraband was present before conducting a search.[9] The other plausible scenario would render ineffective a citizen’s consent to search and effectively bar the police from searching a motor vehicle.[10]

Ideally we would like to reside in a society where racial profiling does not exist; however, that is not the reality. Therefore, it is important that we consider one or many of the proffered solutions as a means to end racial profiling.


[1]  Noah Kupferberg, TRANSPARENCY: A NEW ROLE FOR POLICE CONSENT DECREES, 42 Colum. J. L. & Soc. Probs. 129,139 (2008).

[2]  Id.

[3] Id.  at 134 (detailing the United State Department of Justice’s investigation and subsequent consent decree with the City of Los Angeles); See also  David A. Harris, ESSAY: “DRIVING WHILE BLACK” AND ALL OTHER TRAFFIC OFFENSES: THE SUPREME COURT AND PRETEXTUAL TRAFFIC STOPS, 87 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 544, 561-69 (1997) (detailing several disturbing race-based traffic stops).

[4]  Id. at 576-79; See also, Timothy P. O’Neil, Article: Vagrants in Volvos: Ending Pretextual Traffic Stops and Consent Searches of Vehicles in Illinois, 40 Loy. U. Chi. L.J. 745, 772-779. (2009).

[5] Harris, supra, note 3 at 576-79.

[6] Id. at 579.

[7]  O’Neil, supra, note 4 at 774-75.

[8]  Id. at 773.

[9]  Id. at 778-79.

[10]  Id. at 778.

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