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California AB 2773 Requires Police to State Reason for Traffic Stops Before Questioning

by Jo Ellen Knott

On January 1, 2024, Assembly Bill 2773 took effect in California. The law requires police officers to tell drivers why they have been pulled over before questioning them on other matters. This aims to curb pretextual traffic stops, where officers pull someone over for a minor traffic violation for the actual purpose of investigating unrelated suspicions.

The law, written by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), was part of his Public Safety Bill Package that passed in 2022. Pretextual stops have been found to be constitutional, but there are indications that law enforcement uses them to target Black drivers. Stanford University researchers analyzed data from 100 million traffic stops across more than 20 states and reported that Black drivers were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be searched than white drivers. The Los Angeles Times found in 2019 that similar disparities existed in Los Angeles.

The good news is that the Los Angeles Police Department had already taken steps to limit pretextual stops under a policy approved in March 2023. The policy states that officers must have a reason to suspect a more serious crime is occurring before the stop, and they are required to record their reasoning on body camera. AB 2773 basically codifies the LAPD policy and expands it statewide.

The policy is working, according to an Los Angeles Times analysis of LAPD records. Officers are stopping fewer motorists for the types of minor violations they had previously used to initiate pretextual stops and are conducting fewer searches during those stops. A bonus uncovered by the data is an increase in contraband found even though the number of pretextual stops dropped from 21 percent to 12 percent of all stops.

The new law, however, does give law enforcement leeway to not state the reason for the pretextual stop if they have a reasonable belief of imminent threat to life or property, but this exemption is subject to oversight and regulation. A challenge to that provision is how to effectively monitor the “imminent threat” exception and prevent its misuse.

Unsurprisingly, law enforcement unions oppose the law, arguing that officers need the ability to take immediate action without explanation, even in non-threatening circumstances. The idea that the police cannot state the reason for the stop into their recording device before they arrive at the stopped car is illogical. Tim Cushing of TechDirt points out that “if it is a guns-out stop, it is not pretextual.” He calls the California State Sheriff’s Association’s opposition to the law “pure desperation,” an opposition mounted by people who believe “law enforcement should be treated as a law unto itself, answerable to no one.”

AB 2773 will have a positive impact, according to its supporters. The foremost is a reduction in the number of pretextual stops and fewer unnecessary searches. Another is an improved focus on serious crimes rather than minor traffic violations. A welcome impact for the public is increased transparency and accountability in police interactions with motorists. A potential impact will be increased officer safety because of fewer stops. AB 2773 should serve as a model for other states seeking to address concerns about biased policing and improve community relations.  


Sources: Assemblyman Chris Holden District 41 website, Los Angeles Times, TechDirt

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