Last week, when a video surfaced of the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, it was only the latest iteration of a dreadfully frequent occurrence—the Routine Traffic Stop Gone Wrong.
Only some of them make the news. Bystander cell phone videos or dashboard cameras help. Just a few months earlier, elsewhere in South Carolina, a white state trooper stopped a black driver for a seatbelt violation. When the driver reached for his wallet, the trooper thought he was reaching for a gun, and shot him. (The driver recovered from his injuries.)
In relaying stories like this, news reports always note the race of both the officers and the drivers—and they don’t have to make a show of explaining why. The routine traffic stop, like the stop-and-frisk, is heavy with a history of racial tension in America.
We don't need Chris Rock’s pulled-over selfie series to know this to be true. But if we do need hard evidence, it’s out there. After the shootings in South Carolina, the Charlotte Observer reported on a study conducted in its neighbor to the north, which enumerated the disparity in traffic stops among black and white drivers. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political scientist Frank Baumgartner analyzed traffic stops in all of North Carolina’s police departments over 13 years, looking at the race and gender of the drivers, the purported reasons for the stops, and whether the stops led to searches of the drivers’ cars.
The Supreme Court ruled in Heien v. North Carolina that an officer’s “mistake of law” could lead to a traffic stop without violating the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights, as long as the officer’s mistake is “reasonable.”
In Charlotte, for instance, black drivers are pulled over at a slightly higher rate than white drivers, but regardless of the reason for the stop, they have their cars searched at a rate twice that of white drivers. Black drivers are also frisked almost three times as often. Perhaps unsurprisingly, young drivers are stopped and searched much more often than older drivers, and male drivers much more than females. In Durham County, Baumgartner and his team found, black people make up 39 percent of the population, but 57 percent of the traffic stops by Durham police over that same period of 13 years. Here, too, black drivers were twice as likely as white drivers to have their cars searched in the course of a traffic stop.
Baumgartner’s study was made possible by the fact that the state of North Carolina mandated the collection and publication of traffic-stop data by police officers; it was the first state in the nation to do so, as the result of a bill passed in 1999. But this state should not be singled out for its racially skewed traffic-stop legacy, because it’s not alone. Similar indications of racial bias in traffic stops—either against black drivers, or Hispanic drivers, or both—have been found in Missouri, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Rhode Island, Connecticut. This is true nationwide in the United States, and it’s true in Canada. In many of these places (and many more), non-white drivers are not only more likely to be the subject of discretionary traffic stops than their white counterparts, but they are also more likely to be frisked and searched in the process, and more likely to get tickets rather than just verbal warnings.
In part because of the pressure this kind of data puts on law enforcement, however, some policies are changing to address these imbalances. Durham politicians credit the North Carolina statistics for a new policy that mandates that police get written consent from drivers to search their cars when they do not have probable cause, which will also underscore the fact that the searches are the drivers’ choice. The New York Times reported last fall that similar changes were being made to traffic-stop procedure for similar reasons in Austin, Texas, and Kalamazoo, Michigan.
In another sense, however, the future of traffic stops is less hopeful. The Supreme Court ruled in Heien v. North Carolina this past December that an officer’s “mistake of law” could lead to a traffic stop without violating the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights, as long as the officer’s mistake is “reasonable.” Nicholas Heien’s side had argued that this would create a double standard for the responsibility of officers and civilians; average people can’t claim ignorance of a law in defending themselves after breaking it. The Court disagreed.
The details of the case are complicated, but critics of the ruling maintain that it essentially gives cops even more latitude than they already had, to stop whomever they want, for whatever pretext they claim. It will also likely make it harder for those who feel they have been treated unfairly to challenge the searches and seizures that result from those stops. In an essay entitled “Do You Know Why I Stopped You? The Future of Traffic Stops in a Post-Heien World,” the University of Connecticut’s Sarah Ricciardi writes: “If courts allow mistakes of law, officers will likely choose to stop drivers even in situations where they are unsure that a law actually prohibits the drivers’ conduct, on the off chance that some statute can later be mistakenly construed to sanction the stop.”
And Dahlia Lithwick argues in Slate that, although the Court did not make reference to current events in Heien, “the fact that police will now likely be encouraged to choose the broadest possible range of plausible readings of any traffic law seems like the worst possible outcome at a moment when police overreach, particularly in poor and minority communities, is such a pressing issue.”
Data analysis consistently shows that traffic stops are disproportionately experienced by non-white drivers, and so it seems clear that what happens during those stops—whether that be frisking, searching, a “mistake of law,” or a much more tragic type of mistake that escalates into violence—will no doubt disproportionately affect them as well.
True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.