Race data from traffic stops by State Police, other departments won’t be available under Pa.’s public records law

Pennsylvania State Police will be directed to release an annual report on traffic stop data, but public information experts say that’s not enough.

Pa. State Trooper car

A Pennsylvania State Police vehicle. (Commonwealth Media Services)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Gov. Josh Shapiro is poised to sign a bill that requires Pennsylvania State Police and many other law enforcement agencies to collect data on drivers pulled over during traffic stops, including their race or ethnicity.

But the bill also exempts those data from the state’s Right-to-Know Law, filtering it instead through State Police or a third party — a concern to public information advocates.

“I’d like someone to explain to me why the data should not be subject to the Right-to-Know Law,” said Craig Staudenmaier, an attorney with Cohen Seglias who specializes in Pennsylvania’s public information law. “It seems like, you know, there’s a purpose behind the gathering of the data. Therefore, why shouldn’t that be publicly available?”

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The provision is part of a larger bill that would empower police to pull over people for handling their cellphones while behind the wheel.

Under its data collection component, State Police and an estimated 452 departments that serve at least 5,000 people would have to collect data on the reason for any traffic stop; the driver’s race or ethnicity, gender, and age; whether a search was initiated and if the driver consented; and whether the stop resulted in a citation, arrest, or other action.

The legislation would provide some level of access to that information. It directs State Police to collect local departments’ data and compile the information in an annual report, with analysis to be done either by the agency or a third party.

The result of that work, the bill says, should be made “publicly available by posting the annual analysis and report on a publicly accessible Internet website.”

But that’s not the same as true public access, said attorney Zachary Gordon of Pittsburgh’s Del Sole Cavanaugh Stroyd, who also does public information work and has concerns about the provision.

“While it might give a similar picture, it really limits what else the public may want to request,” he said, noting that the setup will also keep people from being able to ask for information frequently — they’ll have to wait for new reports to come out once a year.

Along with that delay, Staudenmaier said, “The information is being filtered through the organization putting up a report. … You should be allowed to get it and look at it and draw your own conclusions, and not have to have them spoon-feed you.”

The bill originated in the state Senate and was amended by Democrats on a state House committee to mandate police collect driver data. That amendment also said that the data would not be accessible under the Right-to-Know Law.

The amendment was introduced by state Rep. Ed Neilson (D., Philadelphia), who did not respond to a request for comment about the RTK exemption.

The office of state Sen. Rosemary Brown (R., Monroe), the bill’s main sponsor, didn’t respond when asked why that language was included. A spokesperson for state House Democrats, who control the chamber, also did not comment; nor did Shapiro’s office.

State Police already voluntarily record racial data on all “member-initiated” traffic stops, though the agency quietly paused collection a few years ago before resuming the practice.

Data from 2022 were analyzed by the nonprofit National Policing Institute. First and second quarter reports were released in September 2022; a third quarter report was released in November 2022; and an annual report was released in May 2023.

A spokesperson for State Police said the schedule was based on the National Policing Institute’s ability to complete its analysis. The agency has not released a new report since last May.

Some local departments also collect racial data on traffic stops, but the policy isn’t universal.

The path to compromise

The bill’s primary focus — allowing police to pull drivers over because of cellphone use — is a long-sought change that supporters say will make Pennsylvania’s road safety laws more comprehensive and enforceable.

The commonwealth already has a summary texting-while-driving ban on the books, but it is limited specifically to texting, not other phone use.

The bill awaiting Shapiro’s signature would prohibit virtually all use of cellphones while driving by defining cell phone use simply as involving a person continuously holding or handling a device while driving. It also makes this phone use a “primary” offense, which means drivers can be pulled over for that behavior alone, rather than having it be enforceable only in concert with another behavior like speeding.

“After more than a decade of relentless work to enact this legislation, the passage of Senate Bill 37 marks a monumental victory for Pennsylvania,” Brown said in a statement after her chamber passed the bill. “This bill is more than legislation — it is a reminder of the power of perseverance and the impact we can have when we prioritize public safety.”

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During previous attempts to pass the distracted driving bill, the Legislative Black Caucus balked over concerns that any new distraction law would be unfairly applied to people of color.

Mandating racial data collection assuaged most caucus members’ concerns and gave the bill enough support to pass.

State Rep. Napoleon Nelson (D., Montgomery), who chairs the Black Caucus, told Spotlight PA that the final bill was a tough vote and not all members of the caucus got on board.

“It is still a major concern,” he said. “The fact that we’re providing yet another tool to law enforcement that … yields even more opportunity for law enforcement to engage law-abiding members of our communities.”

While the Black Caucus never would have proposed this kind of legislation and isn’t thrilled with it, Nelson said, he added that “ensuring that there is accountability and fairness means that we are able to say yes.”

A spokesperson for state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) told Spotlight PA that the new version of the bill was developed in concert with Brown and the Legislative Black Caucus to “ensure that drivers are treated equally and to mitigate profiling of individuals.”

Under the portion of the bill directly related to distracted driving, drivers would still be permitted to use their phone’s map or music apps while on the road, but should have the phone in a mount to avoid violations.

The bill also adds this wider suite of cellphone distractions to the list of violations that can get drivers additional penalties if they’re convicted of a crime, and mandates that educational material on distracted driving be added to learner’s permit training.

A spokesperson for Shapiro said the Democratic governor will sign the bill, which hadn’t reached his desk as of May 21. The legislation awaits signatures in both the state House and Senate, a procedural step. The upper chamber isn’t due back in Harrisburg until June 3.

Once Shapiro signs the bill, police must wait 12 months to begin fining drivers for violations. Brown said the gap between passage and enactment is intended to give people time to familiarize themselves with the rule.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

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