Thousands of motorists are pulled over by police officers in Illinois and around the country each day. Police officers sometimes pull over vehicles because they observed them speeding or being driven recklessly, but many traffic stops are based on suspicion and justified by minor violations like expired tags or darkly tinted windows. These are known as pretextual traffic stops, and studies have revealed that the drivers pulled over in this way are usually either Black or Latino.
Pretextual traffic stops
These traffic stops are called pretextual because the motor vehicle violation used to justify them is only a pretext. What police officers really hope to do in these situations is find evidence of other crimes. The people arrested during pretextual traffic stops are often taken into custody on gun or drug charges. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that pretextual traffic stops do not violate the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure as long as police officers involved have probable cause. A minor traffic violation provides police officers with probable cause.
Traffic stops in Illinois
Pretextual traffic stops have become very common in Illinois. Official data reveals that the number of traffic stops initiated by Chicago Police Department officers rose from approximately 86,000 in 2015 to almost 378,000 in 2021. The data also shows that Black drivers were pulled over about five as often as Caucasian drivers, and Latino drivers were pulled over more than twice as often. Two-thirds of the motorists pulled over in Chicago in 2021 were Black even though African Americans only account for about a third of the city’s population.
Researchers have discovered that pretextual traffic stops create division in marginalized communities while providing few benefits. When the practice was banned in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Black drivers were pulled over less often but crime did not increase.