A bill to limit law enforcement officers from issuing tickets for “low-level violations”, such as expired plates or having a light out, was narrowly passed in the Senate on Wednesday.
Senate Bill 50, authored by Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), would prohibit a law enforcement officer from stopping or detaining the operator of a motor vehicle or bicycle for a low-level infraction unless a separate, independent basis for a stop exists. The bill would authorize a law enforcement officer who does not have grounds to stop a vehicle or bicycle, but can determine the identity of the owner, to send a citation or warning letter to the owner.
According to SB 50, low-level infractions would include:
- A violation related to the registration of a vehicle or vehicle equipment
- A violation related to the positioning or number of license plates when at least one plate is clearly displayed
- A violation related to vehicle lighting equipment not illuminating, if the violation is limited to a single brake light, headlight, rear license plate, or running light, or a single bulb in a larger light of the same
- A violation related to vehicle bumper equipment
- A violation related to bicycle equipment or operation
In addition, window tinting was originally included in the bill before being removed in a later version. Commercial vehicles would not be covered by the bill and would still be able to be pulled over solely for any of the above reasons if the bill is passed.
Senator Bradford says he wrote the bill over racial profiling concerns by police officers simply pulling over vehicles on one of those pretexts when there is suspicion, as well as concerns of escalated violence in traffic stops caused by simple pull overs.
“We have seen far too many times how traffic stops can rapidly escalate and turn deadly. In this day and age, there’s no reason why Californians should be stopped and potentially subjected to brutality or dehumanization because of an expired license plate,” said Senator Bradford in February. “This legislation will reduce the potential for more harm to innocent members of the public.”
“SB 50 will especially help to protect Californians of color from unnecessary harm and ensure that law enforcement has more time to focus on community safety by preventing and solving serious crimes. The data clearly backs up the need for this legislation. Black Californians are far more likely to be targeted by police. Passing SB 50 will also help to reduce the risk of harm to law enforcement officers by limiting the need for one of the most dangerous elements of their job.”
Bradford specifically cited a 2022 ACLU study that found that sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles and Riverside counties spent nearly 9 out of every 10 hours on stops initiated by officers rather than responding to calls for help. Of those stops, 80% were for traffic violations.
SB 50 divides Legislature
Introduced in February, SB 50 quickly became a divisive bill, with many Democrats siding with Republicans against the bill. While supporters used Bradford’s reasoning in backing the bill, detractors quickly noted that traffic infractions were put in place to help save lives and that simple traffic infractions often lead to larger crimes being found out or calling in to find that the driver has active warrants.
“A lot of times police will find bad people,” said Senator Kelly Seyarto (R-Murrieta). “Like in Riverside when they got the notorious serial killer William Suff. He was actually pulled over for a taillight violation and subsequently they figured out who he was and arrested him.”
While SB 50 started strong, the growing number of detractors soon became apparent in Senate committee votes. This led to a full Senate vote showdown this week where the bill was passed 22-11 with 7 abstaining. Had a few of the abstaining votes switched to “no,” SB 50 would not have passed.
SB 50 now heads to the Assembly for a vote, where it is expected to face a stiff challenge due to the growing number of Democrats against the bill. While Bradford hopes to amend the bill again to allow for police to pull someone over for multiple of the challenged safety infractions, such as a broken taillight and expired registration, in an attempt to draw back many votes, it also risks the vote coming back to a clearly divided Senate.
“He doesn’t want to admit it, but SB 50 is really not in great shape,” explained former police officer and law enforcement advisor Joaquin Diaz to the Globe on Thursday. “The fact that many traffic violation pull overs result in larger crimes to be found, convinced many to not go for this one.
As has the question of what to do if a few of those infractions happen, but it sounds like Bradford is quickly correcting that mistake. And then there is the issue of safety. A headlight being out is very unsafe, I don’t care if it was faulty or whatnot. It limits your vision, especially in parts of the state not so lit up. And the back light being out could affect your blinkers. Why would you be against safety?”
“But, the big thing is, if police are determined, they’ll find the ways. If there is suspicion and a light is out they can clock you going a few miles above the speed limit or see you give a swerve, or change lanes without signaling. Something else. There’s always something. So this bill is also largely moot. At most, it would just be a smaller added step. At the least, it will mean extra tickets for someone because the police found another reason for the pullover, and now that person the bill was supposed to spare just got even more in trouble. The bill is a nothing bill, and more and more people in Sacramento are realizing this.”
SB 50 is expected to be heard next in the Assembly.