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Law enforcement in Washtenaw County pulls back from controversial pretext stops

Posted at 5:24 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 18:24:24-04

WASHTENAW COUNTY (WXYZ) — As a national reckoning over police tactics continues to unfold across the country, law enforcement in Washtenaw County say they’re moving away from a controversial policing tool that studies have linked with racial profiling.

Pretext stops are common among police and take place when an officer stops a driver for a traffic or ordinance infraction but is really seeking evidence of another crime.

Some high-profile cases of police brutality originated with a pretext stop. In 2015, Inkster police officer William Melendez pulled over and later beat motorist Floyd Dent.

After observing Dent leave a hotel that was known for drug activity, officers followed him. Once he failed to use a turn signal, officers pulled him over.

Melendez was ultimately sent to prison over Dent’s beating.

Pretext stops are legal and departments say they alone get more drugs and weapons off the street than any other police technique.

But these kinds of stops, say a growing number of police and prosecutors, come at an enormous cost to the public and to the public trust.

“It’s bad when the police are randomly stopping people, randomly asking for consent on a fishing expedition,” said Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton.

“We know that a lot of times, that happens in areas that are socially and economically challenged, that also happen to be in areas of Black and Brown,” he said. “And it leads to racial profiling."

Studies through the years have has shown that pretext stops target people of color more than Caucasians, and when Washtenaw County’s new prosecutor Eli Savit took office in January, one of the first things he did was announce an end to prosecutions that stem from a pretext stop.

“At the end of the day, there are the stops that uncover evidence of those crimes, but there are many, many more that are humiliating, that are degrading and that erode the trust of the community that uncover nothing at all,” Savit said.

“And it’s those types of stops that we really want to discourage from taking place.”

There are exceptions, Savit says. If a stop leads to the discovery of a murder weapon or a large amount of drugs, a prosecution can continue. But for low level offenses, like drug possession, his office won’t bring those cases.

“We’re just not interested in it because we want to discourage those types of stops from being effectuated,” Savit said.

Sheriff Clayton said that historical abuses of pretext stops forced prosecutors like Savit to issue his new directive clamping down on their use.

“What would you say to people who say pretext stops have gotten drug dealers off the streets…, and if it weren’t for pretext stops, they wouldn’t be?” asked Channel 7’s Ross Jones.

I would say there’s some truth to that,” Clayton said. But like anything else, we have to regulate it. We have to use it right. And we have to analyze the impact of it.”

Criminal defense attorney William Maze is constantly defending clients in legal trouble following a pretext stop. He applauds the Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s new policy, but is skeptical it will lead to substantive change.

“The heart is in the right place,” Maze said. “I just don’t think it’s going to have a practical effect on officers in their day-to-day affairs.”

These stops have been a part of policing, Maze says, and asking cops to break old habits won’t come easy.

“You’re asking officers only to stop motor vehicles when they have maybe probable cause, when they don’t need probable cause,” he said. “They need only reasonable suspicion.

For now, Washtenaw is the only county in Michigan willing to conduct this experiment. Only time will tell if others follow their lead.

“It’s not legitimate for us in our profession to say we’re taking more guns off the street, we’re saving lives, we’re putting bad guys away…and you know the collateral damage is, we’re harming Black and Brown communities,” Clayton said. “That’s not acceptable.”

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.