An air freshener dangling on the rearview mirror or driving with expired tabs will no longer be reasons for the Minneapolis Police Department to stop motorists, Mayor Jacob Frey (D) announced Friday.

Additionally, the city attorney’s office will no longer pursue tickets against motorists cited for driving on expired licenses if the sole reason for the suspension was a failure to pay fines and fees and not “egregious driving behavior” or criminal activity.

City Attorney Jim Rowader and his deputy in the Criminal Division, Mary Ellen Heng, told The Washington Post in a statement Friday that the changes will help to address racial inequities in traffic stops “while not compromising public safety.”

The city’s announcement comes several months after 20-year-old Daunte Wright was pulled over in the nearby suburb of Brooklyn Center for expired license tabs and fatally shot by a police officer. Wright’s death heightened scrutiny of pretextual stops, a practice that allows police to stop motorists for minor but legal reasons to investigate an unrelated suspicion of criminal activity, according to Mary Moriarty, a former Hennepin County public defender.

Wright’s was hardly the first such incident in that area. Racial justice advocates say police targeting of Black motorists for minor traffic violations has been a rampant problem in the Minneapolis metro area for decades.

The interactions, they said, stoked residents’ mistrust and fear of police after some stops turned deadly, as in the high-profile shooting in 2016 of Philando Castile in the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights. The St. Anthony police officer who killed Castile said he initially stopped him for a broken taillight.

Minneapolis criminal defense attorney Thomas Gallagher explained how police officers can use traffic stops to enforce laws that make "trivial things" illegal. (Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Among justice reform advocates, reaction to the news was generally positive. “I think it is an important and long-overdue change that we have been advocating for,” Nekima Levy-Armstrong, a Minneapolis-based civil rights lawyer, told The Post in a text message.

Reached by phone Friday, Valerie Castile, Philando’s mother, who became an advocate for families whose loved ones have been shot by police, similarly welcomed the news.

“I’m really happy that they’re finally starting to get the picture,” Castile told The Post. “We’ve been talking about this forever: about how Black people are targeted, but no one thought it was targeting.”

Still, Castile said, police need to remove pretextual stops from traffic enforcement altogether.

When Philando Castile was killed at 32, he had been cited dozens of times for a string of minor infractions such as improperly displaying a license plate; eventually, nearly all of the infractions were dismissed. At the time, his record raised questions about racial profiling in traffic enforcement.

Castile recalled that she had been on the verge of marching down to the police station and “cursing them out about messing with him” but said she could not have imagined that her son would die during a traffic stop.

“I never thought that would be his death sentence,” Castile said.

Moriarty, the former public defender, said the new policy is a “first step” but still leaves plenty of room for officers to make pretextual stops. Police must articulate a legal reason to pull someone over, but the stated violation, or the pretext for the stop, doesn’t have to be the actual reason, Moriarty said.

If an officer suspect’s a Black driver of having drugs but has no probable cause to stop the person, they could stop the driver over a minor violation such as improperly signaling a turn or having an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, he said.

“If a cop really wants to pull you over, they’re going to find a reason to do it,” Moriarty said. The stops, she said, then give police a chance to go on “fishing expeditions” and ask for consent to search the vehicle.

“If they have legal basis, they can already search the car,” Moriarty noted. “When police ask for consent to search, it’s because they don’t have a legal basis to do that.” She called the practice coercive and said many community members comply even if they know they can refuse because they fear adverse consequences from telling an officer no.

In 2021 alone, Black drivers accounted for more than half of all minor-violation stops despite accounting for less than 20 percent of the population, according to Minneapolis Police Department data. Earlier this year, news channel KARE11 analyzed the city data and found that, when adjusted for population size, Black drivers were searched at a rate 29 times higher than Whites.

The city attorney’s office said that drivers will still be held accountable for speeding, running red lights and other traffic infractions, and that if minor violations are discovered after more major infractions, they “can and should be added to the citation.”

It was unclear Friday what the MPD rank-and-file’s reaction was to the changes. Minneapolis Police Federation President Sgt. Sherral Schmidt did not respond to a request for comment Friday. A spokesman for MPD declined to offer a comment from Chief Medaria Arradondo; Arradondo did not immediately respond Friday to an email sent to him directly seeking comment.

News of the policy changes first emerged Thursday when a memo from Arradondo to the department was leaked to local media. Much of the language from Addarondo’s email mirrored that of Mayor Frey’s budget address Friday.

In addressing the changes, Arradondo said the leadership recognizes “the continued importance of examining how we can better utilize time, resources and operational effectiveness,” reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which obtained a copy of the memo.

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