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Settlement places restrictions on MPD traffic stops for minor violations

Under a new agreement with the state, MPD cannot pull drivers over for the sole purpose of minor violations like broken lights or mirrors.

MINNEAPOLIS — As Minneapolis prepares for a busy summer, the police department will be operating under new rules that restrict when officers can initiate traffic stops for minor violations.

Under the terms of a new settlement agreement between the city and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, MPD officers cannot pull over drivers for the sole purpose of expired tabs, license plate issues, broken lights or mirrors, or failing to signal a turn, among other issues. However, officers can still make these stops if they determine a risk to public safety.

Nekima Levy Armstrong, a civil rights attorney and activist, has long been pushing for changes to the way MPD conducts traffic stops.

"Provisions surrounding traffic stops are familiar to me," Levy Armstrong said. "What the statistics reinforced was the fact that Black people were more likely than their white counterparts, to be pulled over for equipment violations."

According to last year's Department of Human Rights investigation, 54 percent of MPD traffic stops from 2017 to 2020 involved Black occupants -- despite them making up 19 percent of the Minneapolis population. The report, which prompted the settlement agreement, found that "officers admitted that MPD stops vehicles with people of color for either no genuine reason or for low-level violations."

"Someone having a broken taillight can cause an issue when they're driving for themselves as well as other motorists. At the same time, an issue like that shouldn't be weaponized, particularly against Black motorists, which is what we saw happening," Levy Armstrong said. "So, I'm glad that has now been memorialized in the agreement, and I hope that it's just the beginning."

The settlement builds on measures already put in place by MPD.

The most recent policy on traffic stops, last updated in 2021, prevented officers from pulling over drivers for expired tabs, items dangling from a rearview mirror, or "inoperable" license plate lights. The department also previously implemented a program to offer "Lights On!" coupons to drivers for minor equipment violations.

"We already had in policy, that you couldn't pull someone over because an air freshener was hanging from the rearview mirror... or if something is wrong with how your license plate is hung, [that is] also not a good reason for pulling people over. That was already done," Mayor Jacob Frey said. "This agreement does lay out some specificity with some additional instances that cannot be the initial, primary reason for pulling someone over." 

MPD Chief Brian O'Hara said in an interview this spring that he was initially concerned by some of the proposed language in the settlement agreement. 

However, after reviewing data around traffic stops, O'Hara said he's comfortable with the expanded restrictions, given that officers can still make these stops if the "totality of the circumstances" determines a risk to public safety.

"I don't think this is going to have a significant or real impact on public safety at all," O'Hara said. "There is still the exception for if someone is operating the vehicle in an unsafe manner."

The new agreement also bans MPD from searching people, or their vehicle, solely based on the smell of marijuana -- which will soon be legal in Minnesota anyway for adults 21 and older. 

Chief O'Hara told KARE 11 he's prepared for that change, given that he previously worked in New Jersey, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2021. 

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