Racial Profiling by Police During Traffic Stops: Forbidden by Minnesota Law

In an increasingly racially divisive country, the topic of racial profiling has permeated everyone’s consciousness. This is especially true with respect to law enforcement officers. Whereas pulling someone over for a blatant violation of traffic laws is justifiable, pulling someone over based solely on the color of his or her skin while s/he is driving just like everyone else and not committing any infraction is, quite simply, illegal.

Minnesota statutes forbid racial profiling at traffic stops. Under the law, all police agencies must have a policy regarding and prohibiting racial profiling. Police officers may not decide to instigate a traffic stop based solely on a person’s national origin, race, or ethnicity but only in response to suspicious or illegal behavior. However, if an individual matches the description of a suspect in a potential case, then basing a stop on skin color or race is considered legally acceptable.

Reasons for Increased Scrutiny

Providing the impetus for increased attention on racial profiling by law enforcement officers is the shooting death of African-American Philando Castile during a routine traffic stop for a broken tail light in St. Paul suburb Falcon Heights that sparked considerable protests regarding police violence and illicit racial profiling.

There are two types of traffic stops. The first type is a traffic safety stop for drunk driving, reckless driving, and speeding, for example, which seeks to protect the general public. The second type is an investigatory stop, allegedly for some vehicle defect or issue; however, according to the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, in reality, investigatory stops are frequently the result of racial or ethnic profiling. People of color are pulled over for investigatory stops at a significantly higher rate than white drivers.

The Extent of the Problem

A 2003 Council on Crime and Justice study on racial disparities in routine traffic stops across 65 Minnesota law enforcement jurisdictions demonstrated that:

  • African-American drivers were stopped 214% more often than their corresponding rate of drivers in the general population, followed by Hispanic drivers who were stopped 95% more often. White drivers were stopped 13% less often than expected, along with Asians and Native Americans.
  • African-Americans are not more likely to be pulled over for vehicle equipment violations such as a broken light. Whereas 13.8% of traffic stops were due to equipment violations, only 11% of African-American drivers were pulled over for that reason. Instead, Hispanics and Native Americans were stopped more frequently for alleged vehicle defects.
  • During traffic stops, African-American drivers are more likely to be searched (12.6 %) when compared to white drivers (3%).
  • African-American drivers are more likely to be searched over “a concern for officer safety.” This reason was given in 18% of all searches but in a disproportionate 28.6% of African-American searches.
  • African-American drivers were less likely to be found with contraband (11%) when compared to white drivers (23.5%).
  • African-American and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be arrested during a traffic stop (8%), compared to 3.5% of white drivers.
  • Whereas 52% of all traffic stops resulted in a warning, African-American drivers were less likely to receive one (47.5%) than white drivers (53.5%).

The Effects of Racial Profiling

Racial profiling by police undermines trust and cooperation within certain communities because such behavior makes everyone a suspect. In the Castile case, whereas police were realistically not going to stop every vehicle with a broken tail light, the officers’ decision to stop Castile was based on the premise that officers thought that, perhaps, there might be something else at play. What law enforcement officers and legislators do not discuss is that this “something else” might simply be the color of the driver’s skin.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

If Castile’s—and other innocent African-Americans’—death wasn’t enough, Minneapolis Police Union President Bob Kroll stated during a radio interview that his city didn’t have a problem with racial profiling. This statement was made after four off-duty police officers who were working at Target Center during a pregame warmup between the Minnesota Lynx and the Dallas Wings walked off the job because several Lynx players were wearing black T-shirts supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Kroll blamed the walk-off on the Lynx’s having “such a pathetic draw” and publicly called the movement a “terrorist group”; however, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau did not condone Kroll’s statements or attitude. Attitudes such as Kroll’s are what fuel the racial profiling debate and serve to undermine the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they swore to protect and serve.

If you have been the victim of unlawful racial profiling by police officers, or for more information, please contact us.