WASHTENAW COUNTY, Mich. (WXYZ) — Newly-elected Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit announced a new policy to combat racial profiling.
The 10-page policy directive prohibits assistant prosecuting attorneys from filing possession-of-contraband charges stemming from "pretext stops" by police officers.
The prosecutor's office says a pretext stop is a stop in which a police officer detains a person, purportedly as a result of an observed traffic or ordinance violation, but where the officer is supposedly seeking to uncover evidence that the person possessed drugs or other contraband.
The policy directive emphasizes that “people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.”
The policy directive notes that “Black motorists are significantly more likely than white motorists to be stopped for a traffic violation.” Once they are pulled over, “Black and Hispanic drivers are significantly more likely to be searched for contraband.” And “police require less suspicion to search Black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers.”
The prosecutor's office says that in light of those racial disparities, it will no longer charge “contraband crimes” if (1) a civilian was stopped for a minor traffic or ordinance violation, and (2) the officer used that stop to obtain “consent” to search the civilian or their automobile—without any independent suspicion to believe that the civilian committed a more serious crime.
“Contraband crimes” are defined as 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 applies only to “consent searches” following routine traffic or ordinance stops. It does not apply if the officer stopped a civilian to investigate a crime. It also does not apply if the officer has independent reason to conduct a search following a traffic stop. The policy, for example, does not apply if the officer observes contraband in plain sight—or if the officer has legally sufficient “probable cause” to believe that a search would uncover evidence of a crime.
The policy also does not preclude Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys from filing charges for crimes against “persons or property,” such as homicide, domestic violence, or sexual assault.
“Today’s policy directive is about rebuilding trust in our community,” Savit said in a press release. “We are sending a message that we are not interested in pursuing contraband charges that stem from racial profiling.”
“I know many of our local police agencies have moved to discourage pretext stops,” Savit continued. “Those actions are tremendously important. Today, we’re doing our part, by sending a clear message that routine traffic stops should not be effectuated as a ‘fishing expedition’ to search for drugs or other contraband.”
The full policy directive is available for the public to view at https://www.washtenaw.org/DocumentCenter/View/19235/Pretext-Stops-Policy.