Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office announces new policy to fight racial profiling

ANN ARBOR – The Washtenaw County Prosecutor’s Office announced today a new policy aimed at combatting racial profiling.

Issued on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the 10-page policy directive “prohibits Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys from filing possession-of-contraband charges that stemmed from so-called ‘pretext stops’ by police officers,” read a news release.

A “pretext stop” is a stop in which a person is detained by a police officer, under the guise of an ordinance or traffic violation, but where the officer’s intention is to uncover evidence of drug or contraband possession.

Referencing local and national data, the directive states that “people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.”

“Black motorists are significantly more likely than white motorists to be stopped for a traffic violation,” reads the directive. “Black and Hispanic drivers are significantly more likely to be searched for contraband ... police require less suspicion to search Black and Hispanic drivers than white drivers.”

Due to these racial disparities, the Prosecutor’s Office will no longer file charges for “contraband crimes” if a civilian was pulled over for minor ordinance or traffic violation, and if the officer used the opportunity to obtain “consent” to search the person or their vehicle -- without any suspicion to believe that the individual had committed a more severe crime.

“Contraband crimes” are charges for possession of stolen, converted or embezzled property, possession of controlled substances, minor in possession of alcohol and specific low-level possession of weapons crimes.

The policy directive is only applicable to “consent searches” after routine ordinance or traffic stops. If an officer stopped an individual to investigate a crime, it does not apply. Additionally, it does not apply if an officer has independent reason to carry out a search following a traffic stop. If contraband is in plain sight and is observed by the officer, or if the officer has adequate legal “probable cause” to believe that evidence of a crime would be uncovered if he or she were to conduct a search, it does not apply.

The policy does not prevent Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys from seeking charges in crimes such as sexual assault, homicide or domestic violence.

The policy notes how humiliating and traumatizing pretext stops can be and how they can lead to “broad distrust of law enforcement.”

“Today’s policy directive is about rebuilding trust in our community,” Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit said in a news release. “We are sending a message that we are not interested in pursuing contraband charges that stem from racial profiling.

“I know many of our local police agencies have moved to discourage pretext stops. Those actions are tremendously important. Today, we’re doing our part, by sending a clear message that routine traffic stops should not be effectuated as a ‘fishing expedition’ to search for drugs or other contraband.”

“As a Black person and former criminal defense attorney, I have seen the cascading impact pretext stops have had on Black people,” Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Victoria Burton-Harris said in a news release. “Racial profiling leads to unnecessary criminal convictions which affect one’s ability to secure an education, stable employment and housing. Racial profiling is wrong and we have the power to do something about it.

“Dr. King believed that the time is always right to do what is right. Pretextual stops - stemming from implicit biases or not - erode community trust and make us less safe. We must be proactive in preventing them. Our Policy Regarding Pretext Stops is another proactive step towards creating a criminal justice system that works for all of us. We’re in this together. None of us are free, until we are all free.”

To read the full policy directive, click here.

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About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.