‘Unjust practices’: US prosecutor takes stand against minor police traffic stops

A Minnesota prosecutor who filed manslaughter charges against a police officer who shot and killed the black motorist Philando Castile in a 2016 stop for a broken tail light says he will no longer pursue cases involving minor traffic infractions.

The aim, according to the Ramsey county attorney John Choi, is to reduce the number of “unnecessary” encounters between police and people of color that can, as in Castile’s confrontation with officer Jeronimo Yanez, turn fatal.

“I’m not going to do this any more. I am not going to perpetuate these unjust practices that disproportionately impact my community,” Choi said in an interview with the Daily Beast.

Yanez, who is Hispanic, shot Castile, 32, seven times on 6 July 2016, after pulling him over for the broken light. Castile’s partner Diamond Reynolds, who livestreamed the aftermath of the incident, said the officer opened fire immediately after warning her boyfriend not to reach for a licensed gun he said he owned.

In June 2017, a jury acquitted Yanez of manslaughter and other charges, sparking days of protests in Minneapolis and elsewhere. The same month, Castile’s mother Valerie reached a $3m settlement with the city of St Anthony and its police department.

Choi, the Ramsey county attorney since 2011, whose biography describes him as the first Korean-American prosecutor in the US, told the Beast that he had never stopped thinking about the innocuous reason for the stop.

In Castile’s case, he had been pulled over on at least 40 previous occasions. And in St Paul, Ramsey county’s largest city where only 16% of the population is black, 43% of traffic stops in 2020 were of black motorists.

Nationally, black drivers are 20% more likely to be stopped than white drivers, and almost twice as likely to be searched, according to a New York University study published last year.

“We have failed to think about the 98% of people. We can continue to perpetuate all this, or we can change it,” said Choi, who said he believed the low probability of finding guns or drugs in vehicles during such stops was not worth alienating the community for.

Moving infractions, such as motorists driving erratically or at high speed, should continue to be investigated, he said.

The prosecutor’s new approach, which he announced on Wednesday, drew mostly supportive reactions from law enforcement. Todd Axtell, chief of the St Paul police department, issued new guidelines to officers on the same day, according to an email the Beast said it obtained.

Minor violations such as expired tags, a broken headlight or taillight, illegally tinted windows and objects hanging from mirrors were “illegal and important to note”, Axtell said, but had little effect on public safety.

“I want to be perfectly clear: We should not use these violations as a primary reason for a traffic stop unless there’s an articulable public safety concern,” Axtell wrote.

The neighboring Roseville police department also endorsed the new policy in a press release issued on Wednesday entitled “non-public safety traffic stops”.

“Absent other factors, the department will not enforce equipment violations, expired registrations, or other non-moving violations that do not create a public safety concern or a dangerous condition,” the statement, from deputy chief Joe Adams, said.

The department “believes that the changes made to the traffic enforcement policy support the racial equity and inclusion goals of the city”.

But Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota police and peace officers association, said Choi’s policy was “absurd” and “a slap in the face” for victims of crime.

“Basically, the county attorney just announced his office won’t uphold the law and won’t prosecute those [who] break it,” he said in a Facebook statement.

“Those that break the law won’t even get a slap on the wrist, they’ll get a high-five from the county attorney and be left to commit more and more serious offenses. Reduction of crime and public safety for all should be our focus as the crime rate escalates, and this isn’t it.”

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