To improve equity on the road, Philly bans police stops for minor traffic infractions

Police stop traffic on Broad Street

Police stop traffic on Broad Street outside Temple University Hospital. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia City Council on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a bill that bars police from stopping drivers solely for committing minor traffic violations like having a broken brake light.

The measure, approved with a 14-2 vote, is rooted in recent data that show Philadelphia police pull over a disproportionate number of Black drivers for minor traffic violations compared to white and Latino drivers. According to the same data, only a small percentage of these stops result in an officer confiscating any kind of contraband, including illegal guns.

Backers hope the bill will help reduce racial profiling, but also maximize police resources by freeing up officers to enforce more serious violations. Believed to be the first municipal legislation of its kind, the proposed law was crafted in collaboration with Mayor Jim Kenney and Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.

“I’m confident that this bill will be able to address some of the equality issues that we’ve faced in the city of Philadelphia. I think it will put us in a position where hopefully we’ll see significantly less stops as it relates to these types of traffic violations,” said Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who introduced the measure last October and has personally experienced discrimination behind the wheel.

Thomas’ bill does not make any changes to the state’s motor vehicle code, only to how it is enforced in Philadelphia.

Under the measure, dubbed the Driving Equality bill, police would still be able to pull over drivers for so-called primary violations — traffic offenses that can compromise public safety. Those violations deal with how a driver operates their car, such as blowing a stop sign or running a red light.

Under the bill, which now moves to the mayor for his signature, police would not be allowed to stop drivers if their only offense was committing what the bill would categorize as a secondary violation. The list included:

  • Driving with a single broken brake light
  • Driving without an inspection or emissions sticker
  • Having a registration plate that’s not clearly displayed, fastened, or visible
  • Bumper issues
  • Driving with a single headlight or minor obstruction
  • Driving without vehicle registration within 60 days of the observed infraction

People who commit these violations would receive a warning or a citation in the mail. The Kenney administration will determine how that will happen, Thomas said.

Using traffic cameras or designated traffic officers have been floated as possibilities.

“I think everything is on the table right now,” Thomas said in an interview. “We’re following the lead of the administration as it relates to different means and mechanisms of enforcement because that is 100% in their jurisdiction.”

The PPD did not respond to a request for comment, though it voiced support for the bill during a council hearing in September. 

“This is not stopping police officers from making legitimate public safety stops. If I have a reasonable suspicion or probable cause you’re involved in criminal activity, I can make the stop,” testified Francis Healy, special advisor to Outlaw.

In a statement, mayoral spokesperson Joy Huertas said Kenney is “thrilled the administration was able to work cooperatively with Councilmember Thomas to pass and implement this legislative package.”

“PPD worked collaboratively with CM Thomas to structure a bill that achieves the goals of healing police-community relations, reducing racial inequities in stops, and maintaining community safety,” Huertas said.

A separate but related bill introduced by Thomas will require the police department to track information related to car stops within city limits. The measure also passed Thursday.

Partly as a show of public support, the Kenney administration is expected to announce an executive order that closely mirrors the language in Thomas’ Driving Equality bill as early as next week.

The executive order is also seen as insurance in the event the bill faces a legal challenge over who has the authority to implement it.

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