This past summer, the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite Metropolitan Division flooded high-crime, predominantly African American and Latino communities in unmarked police cars, stopping drivers with paper license plates, tinted windows, or broken tail lights as a pretext to search for illegal guns and find dangerous criminals. The operation was part of an emergency operation in South L.A. While terrorizing its residents, there is evidence that the strategy paid off. During the six-month operation, the LAPD Metro Division seized 300 guns and the number of killings in the area stabilized. It is reported that half of Los Angeles’ violent gun crimes occur in South L.A.
According to the Los Angeles Times, which interviewed many of South L.A’s residents, the Black residents felt deeply resentful over how often they are pulled over and the way they are treated by some police officers. A recent survey funded by the LAPD confirmed what many already knew: Black residents are much less likely than other residents to view cops as honest or trustworthy.
The LAPD now faces a conundrum: They want to crack down on crime, but they also want to build ties with historically marginalized communities, and not alienate law-abiding citizens.
Pretextual Searches are Legal
Pretext, in both civil discrimination cases and criminal law cases, generally refers to a reason that covers up other true motives or intentions. Pretextual stops (ie. traffic stops) are often used by police to initiate a stop and search of people they suspect to be involved in criminal activity. This means police will stop you for an innocuous ‘violation,’ such as a broken headlight, and then proceed to investigate you on a separate and unrelated criminal offense.
Because automobiles and traffic flow are so heavily regulated, police officers have wide discretion (called prosecutorial discretion) as to whom they stop and ticket for a traffic violation. Not only are police able to make traffic stops based on countless legitimate ‘offenses,’ they also get to decide whom they will ticket for traffic offenses or investigate.
Judges have repeatedly sided with police on pretextual searches, and courts have generally ignored a cop’s subjective motivation while evaluating the legality of their conduct. The Supreme Court has held that if a cop has a valid legal basis for detaining a driver, the stop is valid no matter what the officer’s subjective purposes might be. See Whren v. U.S., U.S. Sup. Ct. 1996; Arkansas v. Sullivan, U.S. Sup. Ct. 2001. Continue reading