Philadelphia passes bill barring cops from minor traffic stops

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Lawmakers in Philadelphia have passed legislation barring cops from making minor traffic stops that critics say unfairly target minorities — becoming the first major US city to do so.

Mayor Jim Kenney is expected to sign the legislation into law in the coming days, and it would take effect 120 days after that, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

The Philadelphia City Council voted 14-2 on Thursday to pass the Driving Equality Bill — designed to reduce “unequal police practices” against minority motorists, or what’s been called “driving while black,” for minor offenses such as busted tail lights or expired inspection stickers.

A companion bill that passed Thursday also mandates the creation of a public database of traffic stops, allowing users to search data about the alleged infraction.

“These bills end the traffic stops that promote discrimination while keeping the traffic stops that promote public safety,” the city council said in a statement. “This approach seeks to redirect police time and resources towards keeping Philadelphians safe while removing negative interactions that widen the divide and perpetuate mistrust.”

Philadelphia police
The Philadelphia City Council voted 14-2 on Oct. 14, 2021, to pass the Driving Equality Bill.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Philadelphia, a city of roughly 1.6 million, became the first large US city to ban traffic stops solely for low-level infractions, following similar moves from smaller cities and the state of Virginia, according to the newspaper.

Roughly 97 percent of vehicle stops in Philly are for low-level infractions, the newspaper reported, citing the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

Black drivers in the city accounted for 72 percent of those stopped for vehicle code violations over a recent one-year span — despite accounting for just 43 percent of Philadelphia’s population, according to data supplied by Councilman Isaiah Thomas, who wrote the bill.

“To many people who look like me, a traffic stop is a rite of passage — we pick out cars, we determine routes, we plan our social interactions around the fact that it is likely that we will be pulled over by police,” said Thomas, who is black.

Councilmember Isaiah Thomas
“Philadelphia will lead the nation by removing police from certain traffic stops,” Councilman Isaiah Thomas tweeted after the bill passed.
Twitter

Two Republican council members voted against the bills. State Rep. Martina White, who chairs the city’s GOP, told the council in a letter that the Driving Equality Bill violated state law by changing motor vehicle code and could put the city’s state funding in jeopardy, the newspaper reported.

But Thomas said city attorneys ruled the bill to be legally sound since it doesn’t change the violations — just how they will be enforced. Cops can still issue citations to be mailed to drivers for infractions such as improperly displayed emission stickers or an unfastened license plate.

The legislation comes amid a heightened debate over policing tactics nationwide after the police killings of black drivers such as Sandra Bland in Texas, Daunte Wright in Minnesota and Walter Scott in South Carolina — all of whom died following reportedly questionable police stops, the Inquirer reported.

A handful of smaller cities have adopted measures similar to the Philadelphia bills, but the City of Brotherly Love is the first large municipality to address so-called “driving while black” offenses, according to the report.

Philadelphia police
Philadelphia is the first large US city to ban traffic stops solely for low-level infractions.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

In Virginia, a law was passed in March limiting the minor traffic violations that cops could stop vehicles over. It also prevents officers from conducting searches solely based on smelling marijuana, the New York Times reported in April.

At the time, more than 30 states had passed 140-plus new police reform laws since the May 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, 45, was sentenced to 22½ years in prison for Floyd’s killing in June. He said last month he intends to appeal his conviction and sentence in the slaying, which led to worldwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

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