Should you get the death penalty for a broken tail light?

Philando Castile did.

On July 6, 2016, he was summarily executed, without trial, after being pulled over for a tail light that wasn’t working.

Some might argue he had it coming as a serial traffic offender. An article in the Guardian says here that “he had been pulled over on at least 40 previous occasions.” That article doesn’t say for what, but driving while black is a common offense by people like Castile. (Before you go off on me for that, I’m being snarky.)

An old Associated Press article says here that Castile was pulled over “at least” 52 times in 13 years for offenses like “speeding, driving without a muffler and not wearing a seat belt,” although “more than half of the total 86 violations” were dismissed in court, for unstated reasons, but in my experience traffic courts will often cut people slack if they simply repair the deficiency.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, where Castile was executed by a one-man police firing squad, without benefit of a trial, 43% of the city’s traffic infractions are committed by the 16% of the city’s population who are black. Many of these are equipment violations. Things like dirty license plates, or air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror. This is a stunning statistic. Make of it what you will — lousy drivers, junky cars, or racist cops?

The prosecutor in St. Paul has decided not to prosecute minor traffic violations not implicating public safety, which is why this is in the news today. The idea, apparently, is that fewer traffic stops means fewer interactions between police and people of color, which reduces the likelihood of another outcome like the Castile incident. The St. Paul police chief is fine with it, or at least going along with it.

So is a neighboring municipality’s police department, whose deputy chief said, “Absent other factors, the department will not enforce equipment violations, expired registrations, or other non-moving violations that do not create a public safety concern or a dangerous condition,” adding, “the changes made to the traffic enforcement policy support the racial equity and inclusion goals of the city.” Pretty clearly, this is a response to protests against racist policing

That was immediately denounced by Minnesota’s largest police officers’ association. Its director called it a “slap in the face” to crime victims. (Clearly, a non-working tail light victimizes the drivers behind that vehicle.) Exasperated, he declared, “Those that break the law won’t even get a slap on the wrist,” and warned that traffic offenders, if not prosecuted, will “commit more and more serious offenses.”

I’m not convinced people should be driving with non-working headlights, tail lights, or turn signals. But I can’t wrap my brain around the notion that these deficiencies, if uncorrected, will escalate to robbery, rape, and murder. That’s a stupid argument. Moreover, it doesn’t address the very real problems of racist policing and police brutality against black people. If we have to stop enforcing traffic laws to deal with that, so be it, I guess.

A study commissioned by Minnesota’s legislature in 2001, fifteen years before Castile’s death, “found a strong likelihood that racial and ethnic bias played a role in traffic stop policies and practices. Overall, officers stopped minority drivers at greater rates than whites and searched them at greater rates,” which served no legitimate law enforcement purpose, because cops “found contraband in those searches at lower rates than whites.”

(This is a bit of an aside, but illegal immigrants commit serious crimes at about half the rate of citizens, which makes sense, because they come here to work and naturally want to keep a low profile so they can do that. I’ve argued on that if you want less crime, then maybe we should keep the illegals and kick out the citizens, but nobody in authority has taken me up on that.)

The Associated Press article says Castile had pleaded guilty to some violations, “mostly for driving after his license was revoked and driving with no proof of insurance,” which means he had no insurance. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road. He also was repeatedly cited for not wearing a seat belt, which endangers him, but generally not others.

I guess, after thinking about it, I have to come down on the side of enforcing traffic laws. I don’t want to be put in danger by irresponsible drivers. I’m not insensitive to the issue of police racism and racial profiling, and police violence against black people; it’s a very, very serious problem, and I’m very conscious of it. I’ve posted numerous articles on this blog, and countless comments on, blasting racist police, overbearing police unions, and police violence.

But I think a better solution than not enforcing laws is ridding our law enforcement agencies bad cops; instituting better recruiting, training, and supervision of cops; and taking control of police discipline away from police unions. And, needless to say, I’m not in favor of a death penalty for broken tail lights.

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  1. Mark Adams #

    The real issue in the Philando Castile case is driving while there is an open warrant on you. Not the headlight which only gave probably cause for the officer to look the driver of a vehicle with a broken tail light on the system. When an open warrant is found well an arrest is going to occur or should occur. I would think any defense attorney would suggest being cooperative but do not say anything, and do not try to run.

  2. Roger Rabbit #

    He was murdered by a trigger-happy police officer. You really think his traffic offenses and open warrant are the “real issue”?

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