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Bill would bar cops from stopping drivers on most misdemeanors, non-moving violations

Police car lights (Wikimedia/Matty Ring)
February 13, 2023

A bill introduced in the Washington state legislature would prevent police officers in the state from stopping drivers for most misdemeanor warrants and non-moving violations.

The bill states that a peace officer may not stop a vehicle driver to enforce any non-moving violation such as an expired vehicle registration, broken tail light or other equipment failures, unless those equipment failures pose an imminent safety hazard. Officers would not stop drivers with a suspended or revoked license.

The bill states officers cannot stop drivers for any misdemeanor warrants other than driving under the influence and or a domestic violence violation.

The bill says that when an officer does stop a driver for a safety-related equipment failure, they must log the reason for the stop before initiating contact with the driver. The officer also may not ask the driver or any passengers about anything other than the equipment failure for which they were stopped, unless the officer sees evidence in plain sight that establishes a reasonable suspicion of a separate criminal offense.

For moving violations that are infractions or simple misdemeanors, officers cannot ask the driver for a consent search of the vehicle, the driver or any passengers. Officers must also obtain written consent for a search, explain the purpose of the search and inform the driver and vehicle passengers that the search is voluntary.

The officer must let the driver know that they may speak with an attorney and that they may decline the search and will not suffer retaliation if they do. 

The vehicle search consent forms and explanations will be provided in English and Spanish, and must be explained orally to a person who is unable to read the form. An interpreter must be available when necessary, from a district communications center or other agency resource, to explain the consent terms and reason for the search.

The bill state’s that its reason for adding these restrictions to when officers can stop drivers is to focus law enforcement resources on the highest-risk behaviors and reduce “racial disparities in traffic stops.”

“National and local data show that high discretion, low-risk traffic violations, including those that are unrelated to road safety, fall disproportionately on black, brown, and indigenous road users, as well as low-income road users and people with older vehicles; and biased traffic stops result in a decreased sense of safety for all road users and law enforcement,” the bill reads.

Opponents of the bill say the proposed legislation restricts officers from enforcement tools that improve public safety.

“Each one of those laws has a family’s name next to it where they probably lost a loved one,” Jeff DeVere, a spokesman for the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, told KING.