• December 7, 2023

Attorney General says traffic-stop bill isn’t compliant with state law | MoCo360


Undeterred by an opinion from the Maryland Attorney General that parts of his proposed legislation that would limit traffic stops are not in compliance with state law, Councilmember Will Jawando’s (D-At-large) said Wednesday that he would continue to pursue the bill, with changes.

An Office of Legislative Oversight report from 2021 showed that Black and Latino drivers are stopped for lower-level traffic violations at higher rates, such as minor traffic violations, registration issues or equipment issues such as a broken headlight or taillight.

“We must address racial disparities in traffic enforcement and focus on enforcement of traffic violations that are the key drivers of serious injuries and fatalities.”

The STEP Act is a proposed bill that would limit the reasons that county police could stop motorists and pedestrians. The main issue, Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown wrote in the Sept. 15 opinion, is that the state law designates the violations the bill would consider secondary offenses as primary offenses, and under the state law, no local law can override that designation.

“The County Council requested an opinion from the Maryland Attorney General regarding the STEP Act, which I supported and agreed was necessary for this legislation,” Jawando wrote in a press release Wednesday. “I am grateful for the Attorney General’s comprehensive opinion that provides clarity for moving forward.”

STEP stands for Safety and Traffic Equity in Policing. The bill is co-sponsored by Councilmember Kristin Mink (D-Dist. 5) and received support from dozens of community members at a public hearing in April.

According to the bill, a police officer may not stop a motorist for driving with a headlight or taillight out; brake lights out; licenses, registration, or insurance not being up to date; having tinted windows; or other minor offenses. Officers would be allowed to pull motorists over if none of the headlights or taillights are working.

Those offenses could be considered secondary offenses, but not primary offenses—meaning that officers can write a ticket for the offenses, but that they cannot be the main reason officers pull someone over.

“Because the Vehicle Law addresses the subject of primary versus secondary enforcement, and because the General Assembly has chosen to designate certain offenses as secondary while leaving the rest as primary, a local law designating further offenses as secondary would address a subject that the Vehicle Law covers and would thus be preempted,” Brown wrote.

Essentially, this would negate a major portion of Jawando’s legislation.

Brown said that some parts of the bill do not conflict with state law. For example, a provision in the STEP Act that would limit the reasons an officer can search a car would not be preempted by the Maryland Vehicle Law, because the law focuses on traffic violations made by moving cars.

Jawando said he will pursue the parts of the bill that are compliant with the law.

“I plan to proceed with the consent search and data provisions in the bill and I urge our leaders in the Montgomery County General Assembly Delegation to review the opinion, and consider improvements at the state level that further the goals of the STEP Act,” Jawando said in his statement Wednesday.

During a media briefing on Wednesday, County Executive Marc Elrich said he is not surprised parts of the bill are noncompliant with the state law. He said it’s important for the county to work with the General Assembly to determine how to address traffic stops.

“I’m not fully comfortable with the STEP Act as it was introduced, but I do think there are things in there that are worth trying to figure out what we can do with the state to implement,” Elrich said. “I have no qualms about stopping people for speeding, reckless driving, running stop signs, running stoplights, expired license, we could have a debate about how late [expired] registration can be.”

Elrich said he’d like to look into ways to limit traffic stops but still enforce violations – for example, allowing an officer to take a photo of expired plates or taillights and sending the violator a ticket, as opposed to pulling them over.

“I don’t think our police officers are the officers of 30 or 40 years ago … but there are too many examples in American history, of our own history of police acting out and it leads to distrust,” Elrich said.


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