The simplest way to reduce bad interactions between the police and the public is to reduce the number of interactions. In the United States, 19,204,500 people — or 8.6 percent of the driving population — were pulled over by the police in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
If you are black, or male or earning less than $24,999, you are more likely to be pulled over, again according to the U.S. Department of Justice. I was unable to find Maine specific statistics, but I assume the percentages would be on par with the nationwide numbers.
All traffic stops for non-criminal activity should be stopped. If you have an out taillight, or fail to use a traffic signal, or are speeding less than 30 miles per hour over the speed limit (driving 30 miles per hour over is a criminal offense) and so on, the police should not be allowed to pull you over.
The reasonable alternative to traffic stops would be to employ a system similar to what is used at toll booths. A camera should be used to record the incident, and from the recording a ticket should be generated. All police vehicles should have dashboard cameras that must be on the entire time a vehicle is on patrol. If a police officer sees someone fail to use a turn signal, they would make note of the time that it occurred.
A ticket would be generated for the person, and the person could pay the ticket or contest the ticket in court, but they would be confronted with dashboard camera video.
If you are someone who wants to rein in police abuse, this plan should appeal to you. If you are someone interested in police safety, this plan should appeal to you because it makes police safer.
If you are someone who wants less government intrusion, this plan should appeal to you. This would eliminate the police’s ability to restrain you if you fail to use a turn signal. And a traffic stop is a restraint, because you are not free to move or continue on your journey; if you fail to stop, or leave before the police say you can go, you will be charged with a crime. This plan will eliminate the police’s ability to interrogate you when you are stopped; it is an interrogation because they are asking you questions and you are providing them information.
This fundamental change on how traffic stops are conducted can only be accomplished at the legislative level. A new law would have to be written and enacted. The courts will not help in reducing traffic stops. A police officer can currently pull someone over for a traffic violation even if the stop is just an excuse to pull someone over. This is called a pretext stop and the U.S. Supreme Court and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court have said it is allowed.
There is momentum for broad sweeping criminal justice reform, but I believe there needs to be concrete actionable change. The ending of all traffic stops for non-criminal activity is a concrete, doable plan that could and should be enacted.
Jeremy Pratt is a criminal defense attorney and the vice president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.