Officials across the U.S. are rethinking how police handle traffic stops
But in New Hampshire, it’s unclear if safety officials are following suit
It’s a common tactic: a police officer gets a hunch about a vehicle, uses a minor traffic violation to pull it over and questions the driver about their travels, checking out suspicions that have nothing to do with traffic safety.
In states around the country, officials are reconsidering whether it’s a good idea. It’s unclear if New Hampshire safety officials are following suit.
Researchers have documented widespread racial bias in so-called pretextual or investigative stops, while noting that the vast majority of such stops don’t find evidence of a crime, raising questions about their public-safety value.
Such stops also carry danger for both civilians and officers. Numerous unarmed motorists, many of them Black, have been killed during traffic stops in recent years, including Patrick Lyoya, the 26-year-old Congolese refugee fatally shot by an officer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, last month.
“Black and brown individuals are way more likely to be pulled over for these types of traffic stops in particular,” said Nila Bala, legislative director for the Policing Project at the NYU School of Law, which has advocated for limiting pretextual stops. “… If a jurisdiction is looking for a way to tackle racial disproportionality, this is a great place to start.”
Pretextual stops have been an issue in New Hampshire in recent years, as defense attorneys and racial-justice advocates have called attention to NH State Police’s Mobile Enforcement Team, a drug-interdiction unit that has used the tactic on I-93 and I-95.
In 2020, those advocates brought the issue before the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT) — formed by Gov. Chris Sununu after George Floyd’s murder to consider changes to policing — raising concerns about civil liberties and disproportionate impacts on drivers of color.
Col. Nathan Noyes, director of State Police, and Robert Quinn, commissioner of the Department of Safety, denied troopers were trained to conduct pretextual stops, though advocates pointed to court cases documenting their use of the practice. In the end, the LEACT commission didn’t issue any recommendations about pretextual stops.
The Granite State News Collaborative recently presented the Department of Safety with a list of pretextual stop cases and asked for comment on Quinn and Noyes’ statements. Assistant Commissioner Eddie Edwards said they had been referring specifically to pretextual stops based on race or ethnicity.
The department did not answer a question about whether troopers continue to use pretextual stops to this day.
In some parts of the country, concerns about pretextual stops have led public officials to curb their use.
In Vermont — where studies have demonstrated racial bias in traffic stops and searches — Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George said earlier this year that she would no longer prosecute cases based on evidence seized in “non-public-safety stops” like failing to use a turn signal.
Last fall, the Philadelphia City Council banned vehicle stops for certain minor violations. Supporters of the change said such stops had disproportionately affected Black residents and rarely found guns or drugs. The Virginia state legislature passed a similar law in 2020.
In Los Angeles, the police commission adopted a policy barring officers from making pretextual stops unless they have information justifying their suspicions and can state as much on their body-camera recordings.
Police in the U.S. have used pretextual stops for decades, often justifying them as a means of seizing for drugs and guns. Some police groups have pushed back against the recent reforms.
The Los Angeles Police Department union said public safety would be undermined by limits on pretextual stops, citing the “important role they play in taking guns off our streets,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Not all law enforcement officials agree.
In 2013, Harold Medlock, the police chief in Fayetteville, N.C., directed his officers to prioritize safety-related stops like speeding, red light violations and DWIs, rather than the types of minor infractions officers were using as excuses to investigate drivers. A recent study found that crashes, injuries and fatalities went down and racial disparities narrowed, while there was no increase in crime.
Another study, by the Policing Project, showed police in Nashville were disproportionately stopping Black drivers, particularly for non-moving violations that were often used as pretexts — yet only 2.1 percent of stops for such violations led to an arrest or the discovery of contraband.
The researchers also found no relationship between the number of stops in a given area and crime trends. They concluded that Nashville could reduce racial disparities and rebuild community trust, without any public-safety tradeoff, by limiting traffic stops to clear traffic safety issues.
The NH Department of Safety says the Mobile Enforcement Team made 1,572 arrests between September 2015 and mid-April 2022. Roughly 1,000 of those arrests were for drugs, a majority of them simple possession charges.
The department was unable to provide statistics on how many total drivers the unit stopped in those six and a half years. But data previously obtained by the ACLU of New Hampshire shows the Mobile Enforcement Team made more than 1,700 stops in 2019 alone.
“The vast, vast majority of these traffic stops come up empty,” said Frank Baumgartner, a professor at the University of North Carolina, who co-authored the Fayetteville study as well as a book on traffic stops in that state.
“You can’t just say, ‘Well we found 10 people we were able to arrest for being drug couriers,’” he said. ” … How many people did you inconvenience and subject to this kind of potential humiliation, in order to get those 10?”
If you have a story about a vehicle stop you’d like to share, you can reach reporter Paul Cuno-Booth at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-234-8443.
This article is being shared by the Granite State News Collaborative, as part of its race and equity initiative. It was edited by The Concord Monitor, a partner in the collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.