By Hailie Goldsmith
Hailie is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with a minor in Hispanic Studies
More than 400. In the last five years, more than 400 unarmed motorists have been killed by police officers after being pulled over for a traffic violation . The types of traffic violations range from broken taillights to the illegal installation of tinted windows . In these 400 instances, how many of the officers were convicted? Five. Just five officers have been convicted in the aftermath of these killings. The imbalance in justice can be attributed to the more than $125 million paid by local governments to close and excuse 40 wrongful-death lawsuits . All 400 people lost their lives as a result of a traffic stop gone horribly wrong. Police body cam footage and headlines announcing fatalities resulting from traffic stops dominate the news and media. Traffic stops that begin with a seemingly mundane purpose and spiral into a violent and deadly clash between civilian and police officer incite a strong reaction among viewers, consuming the media. These sickening incidents have fueled nationwide outrage in response to the overextended power of policing and its dangerous, deeply intertwined relationship with racism in the United States . In Newburgh Heights, Ohio Black residents comprise just 22% of the town’s population, yet 76% of traffic citations and 63% of speeding cases belong to Black motorists . While deeply embedded racism explains why traffic stops have the potential to become dangerous and life-threatening for many BIPOC individuals, the reason for so many ticketed traffic violations in the first place can be attributed to financial and legal systems that award authoritative traffic enforcement powers to police officers and spur a high volume of traffic stops.
From a constitutional vantage point, the legality of traffic stops can be traced back to the Fourth Amendment. According to Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, “a traffic stop of a vehicle and detention of its occupants is a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes” . Recalling the Fourth Amendment and its applications, the amendment justifies a police officer to conduct a traffic stop if the officer holds a reasonable suspicion that the occupant is unlicensed or the vehicle is unregistered . Police officers employ “reasonable suspicion” as the measure for determining whether or not the search of a motorist is deemed legal. This translates to a court context because courts will require officers to demonstrate the possession of either a search warrant, probable cause, or reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop . If upon conducting the traffic stop, the officer discovers the motorist’s involvement in criminal activities, the routine traffic stop then becomes classified as a “Terry stop.” To an extent, traffic stops have also become a mechanism for crime-solving with the ulterior motive of coincidentally discovering and identifying criminal activity . However, traffic stops are primarily used as a means for extracting revenue and funding local government services and operations rather than resolving crimes .
On a national level, the federal government, more specifically the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, provides approximately $600 million each year to local police departments to fund ticket-issuing programs . Though not enforced at a federal level, at least 20 states have established their own criteria and measures for evaluating police performance based on an officer’s quantity of traffic stops and tickets issued per hour . These local department quotas encourage high volumes of traffic stops, which increases the amount of contact that police officers have with motorists, explaining why violence as well as fatalities are tied commonly to traffic stops compared to other forms of civilian-police interactions.
Traffic officers face extreme pressure stemming from these quotas and the pressure backing these requirements is a result of the heightened importance placed on traffic fines and fees as a primary or substantial source of revenue for many local governments. The presence of ticketing goals essentially transforms armed police officers into revenue collection agents whose primary responsibility is to identify traffic violations and funnel traffic fees to their local government . Local governments allocate the revenue collected from traffic stops and court fees to support various services . This particular trend is a distinguishing feature in towns with fewer than 30,000 people more than it is for large cities, largely due to either small tax bases or state laws restricting the town’s capacity to raise taxes. Geographically, many of these particular towns are located in the Midwest and South . For example, in Valley Brook, Oklahoma, 72% of the town’s revenues originates from traffic-related policing . Henderson, Louisiana tops this number: 89% of the town’s revenues is sourced from ticket writing . In many counties and towns, police officers are incentivized to write more tickets because this often directly translates into better funding, new equipment, and more training for the police department .
Is it possible to re-prioritize the goals of police officers and shift the focus away from issuing tickets for minor infractions and instead solely focus on preventing reckless and dangerous driving habits? Or are police officers the wrong bureaucratic force altogether to be responsible for handling justice with relation to traffic violations? Thankfully, some cities have recognized the importance and need to reform traffic stops for minor traffic and vehicle violations, thereby severely limiting the unnecessary, and potentially deadly, confrontations between police officers and motorists. Berkeley represents one of the cities working towards reforming traffic enforcement through the removal of police officers from the responsibilities of policing minor traffic stops and the replacement of the officers with trained and unarmed civilians . Additionally, the state of Virginia's lawmakers decided to prohibit traffic stops on the basis of broken taillights, tinted windows, and loud exhaust, which cuts down on many minor traffic stops . Just this past month, through the implementation of the Driving Equality Act, Philadelphia became the first major city to outlaw traffic stops for minor traffic violations . The City Council passed the legislation with a 14-2 vote, which places the law in effect 120 days after being signed by Mayor Jim Kenney . The Driving Equality Act categorizes traffic violations into two groups of violations: “primary” violations consisting of major public safety hazards and “secondary” violations which concern much more harmless issues like expired vehicle registration . Philadelphia City Council has exemplified the possibility of reforming traffic enforcement laws to reduce the amount of negative interactions between police officers and motorists while still prioritizing public safety rather than trivial traffic violations. Hopefully other cities, towns, and states across the country can also move to minimize police involvement in traffic management as to reduce avoidable fatalities while still maintaining public safety on the roads and ensuring the well being of their constituents.
The opinions and views expressed in this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
"By the Numbers: Police Traffic Stops.” The New York Times. October 31, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/10/31/us/pulled-over-key-numbers.html?searchResultPosition=1
 Keller, Michael H and McIntire, Mike. “The Demand for Money Behind Many Police Traffic Stops.” The New York Times. October 31, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/31/us/police-ticket-quotas-money-funding.html
 “Traffic Stop.” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/traffic_stop
 “Reasonable Suspicion.” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/reasonable_suspicion
 Thorn, Dan. “Berkeley works to reform police traffic enforcement.” KRON 4. April 12, 2021. https://www.kron4.com/news/bay-area/berkeley-works-to-reform-police-traffic-enforcement/
 Migdon, Brooke. “Philadelphia first major city to end minor traffic stops to cut down ‘negative interactions’ with police.” The Hill. November 1, 2021. https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/579410-philadelphia-first-major-city-to-end-minor-traffic-stops-to-cut-down
 Walsh, Sean Collins. “Philly has become the first big city to ban minor traffic stops said to criminalize ‘driving while Black.’” The Philadelphia Inquirer. October 14, 2021. https://www.inquirer.com/news/philadelphia-city-council-isaiah-thomas-police-driving-while-black-20211014.html