Washtenaw County Prosecutor bans drug charges stemming from racist 'pretext stops'

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Washtenaw County Prosector Eli Savit has announced a new policy directive aimed at combatting racial profiling, the latest of a string of progressive directives the office has announced in recent days.

Issued on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the 10-page policy directive prohibits assistant prosecuting attorneys from filing drug charges that stem from "pretext stops" by police officers — or when an officer detains a person purportedly as a result of an observed traffic or ordinance violation but are really looking for drugs or other contraband. The practice disproportionately harms people of color.

"Today's policy directive is about rebuilding trust in our community," Savit says in a statement. "We are sending a message that we are not interested in pursuing contraband charges that stem from racial profiling."

According to the directive, "A nationwide study of over 200 million traffic stop records indicates that Black motorists are significantly more likely than white motorists to be stopped for a traffic infraction. Once motorists are pulled over, Black and Hispanic drivers are significantly more likely to be searched for contraband."

The Prosecutor’s Office will no longer charge "contraband crimes" if a civilian was stopped for a minor traffic or ordinance violation and the officer used that stop to obtain "consent" to search the civilian or their vehicle without any independent suspicion to believe that the civilian committed a more serious crime. "Contraband crimes" include charges for possession of controlled substances, possession of stolen, embezzled, or converted property, minor in possession of alcohol, and certain low-level possession of weapons offenses.

The policy directive doesn't apply if the officer stopped a civilian to investigate a crime or if the officer has independent reason to conduct a search following a traffic stop. It also doesn't apply if the officer observes contraband in plain sight.

According to the directive, "pretext stops are humiliating, traumatizing, and can lead to broad distrust of law enforcement in communities of color. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor has explained, 'many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking.' But 'few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more.'"

Pretext stops" are also prohibited under the state constitutions of New Mexico and Washington.

"As a Black person and former criminal defense attorney, I have seen the cascading impact pretext stops have had on Black people," Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Victoria Burton-Harris said. "Racial profiling leads to unnecessary criminal convictions which affect one's ability to secure an education, stable employment and housing. Racial profiling is wrong and we have the power to do something about it."

In recent days, Savit's office has also announced it won't pursue charges in cases involving marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, and other psychedelic plants. The office also says it won't pursue criminal charges for consensual sex work, instead focusing on cases involving human trafficking, sex crimes involving children, and sexual abuse and assault.

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