HARTFORD — A bill that would stop police from pulling over drivers for some equipment violations advanced Monday — a change proponents argue would let officers focus on more substantial traffic issues, but police say would make roadways less safe.
The bill, which passed through a House committee on a nearly party-line vote, would make certain “low level” equipment violations a secondary offense, meaning police couldn’t stop a driver for only that reason.
Following a recommendation from the Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force — which said Black drivers are almost twice as likely to be stopped for equipment violations as white drivers — the bill would make window tints, burned-out tail lights and license plate lights, expired license and registration, and a handful of other equipment issues all secondary violations that police could not solely use to justify stopping a driver.
While police have maintained that traffic stops are an important tool in managing roadway safety and investigating crimes, advocates have countered that Black and Hispanic drivers are disproportionately stopped for low-level equipment violations.
At a public hearing on the bill earlier in March, Ken Barone, associate director at the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, said the bill aims to take a scalpel to the 656 violations in the traffic code.
He said it focuses on minor infractions that don’t impact roadway safety, but rather drive racial disparities in traffic stops.
“We’ve learned from 10 years of research that when police primarily use the motor vehicle code to focus on hazardous and aggressive driving behavior, there is little to no racial disparity in [traffic stop] data,” said Barone, who manages the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project, analyzing traffic stop data. “When they start to use the motor vehicle code as part of a crime reduction tool, it has little to no impact on crime and tends to drive racial and ethnic disparities.”
State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, a ranking Republican on the committee, was the only member of his party to vote in favor of the bill. Kissel said he had reservations about the bill, but believed it would allow police to use their time more efficiently.
“Especially as it’s harder and harder to recruit law enforcement, I think [the time] of the men and women who are that thin blue line that protect each and every one of us is better utilized in trying to go after the bad actors, as opposed to getting bogged down with these secondary traffic stops,” he said.
House co-chair Rep. Michael Quinn, D-Meriden, was the only Democrat to vote against the bill in an otherwise party-line vote.
State Rep. Steven Stafstrom, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the committee, said there are too many drivers speeding, driving recklessly and running red lights — all potentially dangerous. He said part of the bill’s intention is to allow police more time to focus on those drivers, rather than “wasting your time by pulling someone over for a reflector that is out, or a window tint they believe is too full.”
However, state Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, a police detective, said he doesn’t believe officers are focused on lower-level violations to the point of neglecting speed, traffic light or distracted driving enforcement.
He noted there has been a decline in traffic stops in recent years — with State Police stops declining 65 percent between 2018 and 2022, and stops declining 40 percent statewide in that time. He said these stops send a clear signal to other drivers that police are enforcing traffic laws.
“Increased traffic stops will lead to a decrease in traffic crashes and other violent crimes,” Howard said. “So, I just don’t think that at this time, with what we’ve seen in our state, that we should send a message to our law enforcement that we want any reduction in traffic stops.”
Barone told Howard that if police spent 10 minutes on each traffic stop for a low-level equipment violation, that would add up to 12,000 hours of police time per year across the state.
Howard questioned whether taking away some reasons to stop a driver would make it harder for police to make investigative stops, asking what would happen if an officer was patrolling late at night and saw a car driving in an area where catalytic converters are being stolen.
“There are 656 violations in the motor vehicle code today. We’re talking about reforms to 23 of them,” Barone responded. “If the average police officer can’t find another legal reason out of the now 625 reasons to stop a car, they probably don’t know the motor vehicle code that well.”
In written testimony, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association said there are reasons for officers to enforce many of the violations that would be considered “secondary.” A car without both working headlights and taillights are a hazard for other drivers, and could indicate a drunk driver who drove into something and broke their lights, they wrote.
“This proposal comes at a time when there is renewed emphasis on traffic safety because of the dramatic increase in fatal and serious injury accidents on Connecticut’s roadways,” they wrote. “Since 2019, traffic related deaths continue to increase on Connecticut roads while traffic stops decrease. These changes will not reverse that trend.”
Barone said the bill tries to leave officers with the ability to stop drivers for legitimate hazards, but some violations are overused. For example, he said about 6,000 drivers a year are stopped for a small obstruction of the windshield, like an air freshener or dice hanging from the rearview mirror. The bill changes the wording so police can stop drivers with substantially covered windshields.
“What this bill does is says to law enforcement, ‘Listen, if somebody is driving around, and they can’t see out of their windshield because it’s covered in snow or dirt, that’s really dangerous, stop them,’” Barone said. “But don’t stop a person because they have rosary beads or a mask hanging off their mirror.”