Oregon lawmakers take fresh look at bill to limit minor traffic stops
In 2021, advocates failed to convince Oregon lawmakers to pass a wide-ranging bill they said would reduce traumatic and potentially fatal interactions between police and people of color.
Now a stripped-down version of that proposal is getting attention early in the Legislature’s 2022 short session, with two hearings held in the session’s first week. But one portion of the new bill, Senate Bill 1510, is once again opposed by law enforcement officers who would experience new constraints on how they could pull over motorists and search vehicles.
The bill is wide-ranging, containing changes that would govern traffic stops, but also change the state’s parole and probation policies, and dole out millions aimed at steering social services to people of color. The overall intent, supporters say, is helping communities disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system to avoid future interactions with police.
“This is not an anti-law enforcement bill,” state Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, said in testimony for the bill Thursday. “It’s about transforming our law enforcement system into an inclusive one.”
But law enforcement officers and prosecutors say the legislation will make Oregon roads less safe. Under SB 1510, police would no longer be allowed to pull drivers over because they have a single non-working tail light, headlight, brake light or license plate light. Those violations could still be subject to a ticket if the police stop a motorist for another lawful reason, and officers could pull over a vehicle they deem unsafe to drive.
The bill would also require officers to inform motorists they have the right to decline a search of their vehicle and to obtain written or recorded documentation that a driver consented to a search.
Advocates say people of color are frequently targeted by police for minor infractions such as a single burned-out light, and that those stops too often carry the risk of escalating.
A recent study by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission turned up evidence that motorists of color are targeted disproportionately in some jurisdictions. For instance, the report found evidence that Oregon State Police traffic tickets to people of color more frequently than white drivers. It also found some indication that Portland police cite or arrest Black motorists more often than white motorists, though those findings were not conclusive. Oregon’s population is 75% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“This bill will prevent the kinds of stops that deeply traumatize and sometimes kill black, indigenous and people of color,” Shani Harris-Bagwell, a member of the Transforming Justice Coalition, a group pushing the bill, said in Thursday’s hearing.
But state police unions, police chiefs and sheriffs, and district attorneys oppose those provisions. Law enforcement groups say officers can play an important safety role in alerting motorists their lights aren’t working. Some agencies also participate in a program that offers discount coupons so drivers can fix the problem.
By taking away the ability for police to pull over drivers for burnt-out lights, law enforcement officials say, Oregon could imperil other motorists.
“A car’s lights are what give those around them an awareness of their presence and a perception of the other car’s location in relation to their own,” Amanda Dalton, a lobbyist for the Oregon District Attorneys’ Association, said in written testimony. “The lack of proper and functional lighting is especially hazardous on darker roads or in adverse weather conditions where visibility is limited.”
Joshua Wetzel, of the Oregon State Police Officers Association, told lawmakers Tuesday that drivers’ brains are trained to perceive their distance from another vehicle by the space between its taillights.
“Something as simple as an exposed white light from a broken taillight… can cause trailing drivers to respond differently,” he said.
SB 1510 proponents, including state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, say the legislation leaves a carve-out for situations that are truly dangerous, since the police would still be able to pull drivers over under a law against driving vehicles in an “unsafe condition.” Law enforcement officials said this week that, absent the ability to pull people over for a defective light, that provision could become a crutch.
“It appears as if our law enforcement officers would be just trying to find another statute in the book for another reason to stop the individual,” said Yamhill County Sheriff Tim Svenson.
Some law enforcement groups also oppose the piece of the law setting new parameters around how officers can search a vehicle. It would dictate that police must inform a driver they have the right to refuse a search of their vehicle. If a driver does agree to a search, officers would have to “ensure that there is a written, video or audio record that the person gave informed and voluntary consent to search.” The district attorneys’ association believes those requirements could “introduce additional uncertainty” that could lead to evidence being inadmissible in court.
SB 1510 is less expansive than the proposal lawmakers considered last year. That effort, House Bill 2002, would have prevented police from arresting people for certain misdemeanor crimes, and generated complaints from law enforcement groups who said the matter needed more discussion. When lawmakers decided to table much of the proposal, advocates were unsparing, calling the move “a profoundly disappointing setback for Oregonians who value and have called for racial justice.”
Prozanski chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and convened a workgroup during the period between legislative sessions to arrive at a compromise bill. Despite the controversy over traffic stops, this year’s version appears to have much greater buy-in than last year’s proposal.
One portion of the bill brings parole and probation policies in line with state laws, ensuring that people who are otherwise allowed to use legal substances while under such supervision are not penalized for using cannabis. It would also require the state Department of Corrections to establish new rules limiting when a parole or probation officer could visit a person at work, and create more leeway for people under supervision to report via video conference.
Those ideas are meant to help people on parole or probation keep their jobs, which can be difficult when having to travel to make a meeting with a supervisor. Proponents say they would also cut down on the negative stigma associated with a parole officer visiting someone at work.
“When supervisors visit the workplace, especially in full gear, it creates a negative impression on the individual by coworkers,” said Billy Anfield, who runs a program that helps Black Oregonians re-enter the workplace after being released from prison. “The entire social landscape at work changes as a result of that visit.”
The Oregon Department of Corrections supports the changes to parole and probation included in SB 1510.
Lastly, the bill would put forward $10 million in grants to culturally specific organizations for uses like addiction treatment, supportive housing, crisis intervention and other services that could help people steer clear of the criminal justice system.
This piece of the legislation builds off of a program lawmakers created in 2013, which pours money into programs that reduce the need for prison beds. But advocates point to research that suggests little of that money has gone to organizations that offer culturally specific services, and so not enough of it is being used to help communities of color.
“We neglected to ensure that the program got funds to historically underserved communities,” said Shannon Wight, deputy director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice.
SB 1510 is scheduled for a work session, where it could be amended or voted out of committee, on Monday. The legislature’s budget committee would next have to approve the bill.
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