HARTFORD — A bill that would block police from stopping drivers for some low level equipment violations, a practice that bill proponents say targets minority drivers, continued to advance largely along party lines, passing the State Senate Tuesday over objections from Republicans that it would make the state’s roads less safe.
The Connecticut Senate voted 25-11 to pass Senate Bill 1195, which still needs approval from the House and Gov. Ned Lamont. The bill would create “secondary offenses” so that issues like burned out tail lights and obscured license plates would not qualify as the sole reason for police to stop a driver.
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said the bill is a product of long-running discussions about racial profiling by police and how Black and Hispanic drivers are stopped at much higher rates.
“This is an attempt to keep our roads safe, but also deal with that conversation we’ve been having for a long time,” Winfield said.
The lone Republican voting in favor was State Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who was also the only member of his party to join Democrats in voting the bill out of the Judiciary Committee in March.
Kissel said Tuesday that “philosophical opposition” to the police is concerning, and said he doesn’t support the “Defund the Police” movement. He said law enforcement has a finite amount of resources, and he hopes the bill will steer police toward a more thoughtful approach to traffic stops, so that drivers will not feel unfairly targeted.
He said that if police cast a wide net by stopping many drivers for low-level offenses, they will catch some violent criminals, but with that method, they will mostly stop people who aren’t doing anything wrong.
“The problem arises, though, if you do that as a matter of course, and your policy as law enforcement is to say, ‘Well,let’s do it in certain parts of certain communities,’” Kissel said. “Unfortunately, either in reality or perception – but often in reality – people in minority communities feel like they’re being picked on unnecessarily.”
Kissel said he didn’t think that preventing police from stopping drivers solely for these offenses would make the roads any less safe, and if it leads to Black and Hispanic drivers feeling less like they’re targeted unfairly by police, it will be worth the change.
“Just casting out the net as wide as possible, and hoping to catch some of these bad actors — at some point we have to make a determination if the friction this is causing is worth catching the one or two individuals it catches,” Kissel said.
Kissel’s fellow Republicans didn’t share his view and countered that taking away the police’s power to stop drivers for an array of offenses tied their hands and would make Connecticut’s roads even less safe, at a time when lawmakers are looking for ways to address an increase in roadway deaths.
State Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said that lawmakers do need to balance public safety and civil liberties. But, he said, a rise in traffic deaths in Connecticut since 2020 coincides with police making fewer traffic stops.
Fazio said he’s concerned that the roads could be more dangerous if police can’t pull over drivers for some of the offenses in the bill, pointing to a rule that drivers must have two working headlights, working mirrors, and an unobstructed view.
Winfield said the bill removes obstructed view as a reason for a stop, preventing police from using items like air fresheners or dice on the rear-view mirror as a pretext for stopping a driver. But Fazio argued police also wouldn’t be able to pull people over for more serious obstructions.
Sen. Paul Cicarella, R-North Haven, said the bill takes away an important tool for police to find bad actors.
“When talking to law enforcement personnel, they say it’s those stops, or any type of stops for that matter, that they’re getting drugs or guns off the street,” Cicarella said.
Cicarella offered an amendment that would have allowed police to stop drivers for smoking marijuana, a point Republican lawmakers have argued since lawmakers were debating whether to legalize it. He argued police can stop drivers if they see them drinking a beer, but not if they see them smoking marijuana. That amendment failed to pass, but Winfield said it’s an ongoing conversation lawmakers will have.
Responding to Republican criticism, Winfield said the bill shouldn’t make the roads less safe. He said that if someone is stopped now for one of these offenses, they aren’t asked to get out of the car and walk home, they continue to drive their car. He said issues like having dice on a mirror aren’t causing the problems on Connecticut’s roads.
“It’s not saying these things are okay to happen, they are issues you can get an infraction for, and all of that remains,” Winfield said. “They’re just not enough to pull people over for that particular thing, given what has happened to people out on the roads and how some of these secondary violations have been used.”