Police could no longer stop drivers for minor violations in Oregon under proposed legislation
Oregon legislators are considering a bill that would require a law enforcement officer to tell a driver they can refuse a search during a traffic stop and would prohibit them from pulling someone over based solely on a minor infraction such as a broken taillight.
Senate Bill 1510 takes portions of House Bill 2002, which died in the 2021 legislative session, and makes reforms to how drivers interact with law enforcement, as well as to parole and probation conditions.
If it becomes law, the bill would no longer allow officers to pull drivers over because of one broken headlight, tail brake light or license plate light. Officers would still be able to ticket drivers for those equipment violations if the stop was initially made for another unsafe driving violation.
Additionally, officers would have to ask for consent to search a vehicle and get that consent in writing or audio or video recording.
Advocacy groups such as Transforming Justice Coalition and Next Up Action Fund say unnecessary interactions with police, such as stops for minor traffic violations, disproportionately affect persons of color. The goal is to reduce interactions that could escalate to violence.
A New York Times investigation from 2021 determined police over the prior five years had killed more than 400 drivers or passengers nationwide who were not wielding a gun or a knife, or under pursuit for a violent crime.
But some law enforcement officials and district attorneys argue the proposed Oregon law will make roads less safe.
Advocate and member of the Transforming Justice Coalition Babak Zolfaghari-Azar said many Oregonians, especially Black, Indigenous, Latino and other persons of color feel unsafe, in part due to "unnecessary" interactions with police.
Fears surrounding traffic stops
During an informational hearing on the bill Wednesday, Zolfaghari-Azar said he's been stopped by police more than 15 times throughout his life.
His first time was at 17 when he was taken to Washington County jail on suspicion of furnishing alcohol to minors, which was later dropped to a traffic violation and fine in court.
In his early 20s, he was placed in handcuffs and his car was "illegally searched" after he said police lied about him running a red light.
"There were no public safety threats in any of these stops, Zolfaghari-Azar said. "Multiple times, police said in court — and of course a judge took their word over mine — that I didn’t signal before turning or didn’t stop all the way at a red light before turning, using that lie as an excuse to violate my freedom, ask me questions unrelated to the stop, and leave me with experiences that have reshaped my life."
Kate Suisman, a coalitions manager and attorney with Northwest Workers' Justice Project, an organization that provides legal representation to low-wage workers, said many of the organization's immigrant clients constantly deal with racism and fear of deportation, and some have been deported for non-violent offenses without opportunity for diversion.
Suisman said the organization supports the bill because it would reduce the chances of interactions between police and individuals like their clients for non-violent offenses.
"We have seen the traumatic effects of deportation too many times," she wrote in a testimony presented in support of the bill.
Concerns about impact on safety
Yamhill County Sheriff Tim Svenson, who spoke on behalf of the Oregon State Police Officers Association and Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, said prohibiting officers from making traffic stops for defective headlights and taillights would still create a safety hazard for motorists.
The impacts on visibility are exacerbated on unlit rural highways, Oregon State Police Officers Association president Joshua Wetzel added.
"One headlight not working could be likened to covering one eye 55 miles per hour or faster. Add in weather factors such as fog, rain or snow and this makes for a dangerous situation," Wetzel said.
In written testimony, leaders from the Oregon District Attorneys Association said the bill would exacerbate uncertainty in Oregon over the search and seizure law, which has already been in flux over the past few years.
Oregon Supreme Court and Oregon Court of Appeals decisions have impacted the ability of officers to interact with people during stops, conduct inventories, and largely eliminated the mobile vehicle exception to the warrant requirement, the statement said.
"Introducing additional uncertainty into the consent analysis could lead to the suppression of otherwise lawfully obtained evidence," the statement said.
Here are other changes proposed in the bill:
Changes to parole and probation conditions, such as aligning supervision conditions with state, not federal, drug laws.
Requires parole and probation officers to get additional training for certification and continuing education, such as trauma-informed care, culturally-specific services and de-escalation tactics.
Directs the Department of Corrections to adopt rules concerning supervision reporting standards, such as when an officer can visit a person at their workplace.
Appropriates money from general fund to Oregon Criminal Justice Commission for distribution to Northwest Health Foundation Fund II for Justice reinvestment programs.
Virginia Barreda is the breaking news and public safety reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at 503-399-6657 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.