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BREAKING - FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Date: January 18, 2021 Contact: Shruti Lakshmanan, Transition Manager
[email protected], 734-697-3933
Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office Announces New Policy To Combat Racial Profiling
Ann Arbor, MI – Today—as the nation celebrates the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office announced a new policy geared towards combatting racial profiling.
The 10-page policy directive, issued by Prosecutor Eli Savit Monday morning, prohibits Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys from filing possession-of-contraband charges that stemmed from so-called “pretext stops” by police officers. A “pretext stop” is a stop in which a police officer detains a person, purportedly as a result of an observed traffic or ordinance violation, but where the officer is really seeking to uncover evidence that the person possessed drugs or other contraband.
Citing both national and local data, the policy directive emphasizes that “people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.” The policy directive notes that “Black motorists are significantly more likely than white motorists to be stopped for a traffic violation.” Once they are pulled over, “Black and Hispanic drivers are significantly more likely to be searched for contraband.” And “police require less suspicion to search Black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers.”
In light of those racial disparities, the Prosecutor’s Office will no longer charge “contraband crimes” if (1) a civilian was stopped for a minor traffic or ordinance violation, and (2) the officer used that stop to obtain “consent” to search the civilian or their automobile—without any independent suspicion to believe that the civilian committed a more serious crime.
“Contraband crimes” are defined as charges for possession of controlled substances, possession of stolen, embezzled, or converted property, minor in possession of alcohol, and certain low-level possession of weapons offenses.
The policy directive applies only to “consent searches” following routine traffic or ordinance stops. It does not apply if the officer stopped a civilian to investigate a crime. It also does not apply if the officer has independent reason to conduct a search following a traffic stop. The policy, for example, does not apply if the officer observes contraband in plain sight—or if the officer has legally sufficient “probable cause” to believe that a search would uncover evidence of a crime.
The policy also does not preclude Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys from filing charges for crimes against “persons or property,” such as homicide, domestic violence, or sexual assault.
“Pretext stops,” the policy emphasizes are “inextricably intertwined with racial profiling.” “More, pretext stops are humiliating, traumatizing, and can lead to broad distrust of law enforcement in our community.” Quoting Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the policy directive notes that “many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking,” but “few realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more.”
“But it does not need to be so,” the policy concludes. “Pretext stops,” the policy emphasizes “are prohibited under the state constitutions of New Mexico and Washington—and there is no evidence that those jurisdictions suffer from increased criminal activity as a result.”
“Today’s policy directive is about rebuilding trust in our community,” Savit said. “We are sending a message that we are not interested in pursuing contraband charges that stem from racial profiling.”
“I know many of our local police agencies have moved to discourage pretext stops,” Savit continued. “Those actions are tremendously important. Today, we’re doing our part, by sending a clear message that routine traffic stops should not be effectuated as a ‘fishing expedition’ to search for drugs or other contraband.”
Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Victoria Burton-Harris echoed Savit’s sentiments
“As a Black person and former criminal defense attorney, I have seen the cascading impact pretext stops have had on Black people,” Burton-Harris said. “Racial profiling leads to unnecessary criminal convictions which affect one's ability to secure an education, stable employment and housing. Racial profiling is wrong and we have the power to do something about it.”
“Dr. King believed that the time is always right to do what is right,” Burton-Harris continued. “Pretextual stops - stemming from implicit biases or not - erode community trust and make us less safe. We must be proactive in preventing them. Our Policy Regarding Pretext Stops is another proactive step towards creating a criminal justice system that works for all of us.”
“We're in this together,” Burton-Harris concluded. “None of us are free, until we are all free.”
The full policy directive is available for the public to view at https://www.washtenaw.org/DocumentCenter/View/19235/Pretext-Stops-Policy. Savit has pledged that his office’s policy directives will be made publicly available.