Ramsey County ends felony prosecutions from low-level stops

A man speaks at a podium
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi announced that his office will no longer prosecute cases where the charge comes from a non-public-safety traffic stop during a news conference on Wednesday. Choi says he's making the change because these kinds of stops disproportionally target people of color.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Updated 8:25 p.m.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi will no longer prosecute cases that stem solely from traffic stops unrelated to public safety such as for a broken tail light or expired tabs, ending a practice he said disproportionately affects people of color, especially African Americans.

Those kinds of stops also rarely find contraband, Choi told reporters Wednesday.

“If you're looking for an example of systemic injustice or systemic racism, that’s it,” he said. “This pattern we have in America where we don't change and we don't listen to the voices of those who have been impacted.”

Choi's decision is supported by several departments including the St. Paul police, which updated guidance to its officers about traffic stops. Minneapolis made a similar move last month.

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The prosecutor said that too often, after the deaths of young Black men during traffic stops, such as Philando Castile and Daunte Wright, there are calls for change, but nothing happens.

In 2016, Castile, a Black man, was fatally shot by a suburban police officer in Ramsey County after he told the officer he had a gun. Castile and his girlfriend were told that they were initially pulled over due to a broken tail light.

Choi's office prosecuted former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was acquitted of manslaughter.

In Hennepin County, 20-year-old motorist Daunte Wright, a Black man, was killed in April after Brooklyn Center police pulled him over allegedly for expired registration tabs. Ex-officer Kim Potter has claimed she meant to fire her Taser instead of her handgun when she shot Wright. She is scheduled to face trial on manslaughter charges this fall.

Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, said for too long Black motorists have been pulled over for minor infractions, damaging trust with police.

"This is a step in the right direction because a taillight, a license plate, headlight, whatever, shouldn't be a reason for somebody to be pulled over. And not just pulled over. But for us, and members of our community that come to us fear for their life. And so we think this is a great decision," Terrill said.

Police departments nationwide have been examining their traffic stop policies amid public outcry over these high-profile cases and some, including Minneapolis and Lansing, Mich., have changed their policies to say officers will no longer stop drivers for minor infractions.

The policy not to prosecute these cases has the support of St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, who has told his department that minor violations should not be the primary reason for a traffic stop unless there's a clear public safety concern.

St. Paul police, local organizations and residents studied traffic stops and came to the same conclusions as the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office.

“We want to address the disparate impacts of some low-level traffic stops on our communities of color. And we want to ensure our practices are in line with community values and expectations," said St. Paul deputy chief Julie Maidment.

She said the policy change will allow officers to focus more on violent crime and on traffic violations that threaten the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists and other motorists.

Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association executive director Brian Peters said in a Facebook post that Choi’s policy is “absurd and is a slap in the face to victims of crime.” The post continues, “Reduction of crime and public safety for all should be our focus as the crime rate escalates — and this isn’t it.”

State Rep. Peggy Scott, a Republican from Andover and member of the House Judiciary Committee, says Choi should not be deciding which laws to enforce and should not be declining to charge felonies that come from minor traffic stops.

"Prosecutors need to do their job, and they need to prosecute and hold accountable the people that break the law, regardless under what circumstances they're breaking the law," Scott said.

Choi says other county police departments either have joined St. Paul or may do in the future. The Ramsey attorney said Roseville’s police department has adopted a similar policy and Maplewood is in discussions about doing the same.