Capitol Comments: Eliminate minor public safety infractions? Not so fast

Published 8:45 pm Friday, April 23, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

The recent verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial has been a long-awaited moment for our state and nation. Regardless of your thoughts on how this case and verdict should or should not have played out, I hope you will join me in praying for peace and healing for our communities. We need to start on a path of coming together, and I hope this will be an important first step.

Peggy Bennett

I recently had some lengthy conversations with Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag and Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose. Both shared with me their thoughts on the state of law enforcement in Minnesota and specifically some thoughts on a hastily drafted piece of legislation that was recently inserted into the House DFL Public Safety omnibus bill.

Email newsletter signup

This new legislation, presented in response to the tragic death of Brooklyn Center resident Daunte Wright, would prohibit law enforcement from making primary traffic stops for minor infractions such as outdated license tabs, inoperable vehicle lights, and obstructed view and tinted window infractions.

At first glance, changing the enforcement of these violations might not seem like a big deal to many. However, I would like to share some thoughts from these local sheriffs that might give you a different perspective on the matter. Here is what I learned:

First, many of these vehicle equipment requirements are important safety issues.

Nonworking taillights and headlights can be a significant traffic safety hazard. For example, inoperable brake lights can cause the person following you to fail to recognize you are stopping until it is too late, especially in inclement weather. An inoperable headlight can make it more difficult to see at night, both for the driver of the vehicle as well as for oncoming vehicles.

The obstruction of a driver’s view by items hanging from a rear-view mirror can cause dangerous visibility issues. Even an object the size of a pencil can obstruct a driver’s view of a motorcycle in the distance or a child playing on the side of the road. Tinted windows are also a visibility danger for a driver, especially at night.

Both law enforcement officials added that, in their experience, they have arrested drunk drivers, narcotics dealers, burglars, felony warrant subjects, etc. during these types of traffic stops.

Both sheriffs told me that there is another less obvious reason that law enforcement values the ability to pull people over for these minor violations.

Minor traffic stops like these are a great tool to help law enforcement build positive relationships with the public and develop connections and trust within the community. I was told that officers rarely issue citations for these minor infractions, but instead use it as an educational opportunity and a chance to develop a positive relationship with a community member.

Talking to these local sheriffs gave me some new perspectives on this issue. It also showed me how important the proper enforcement of law is for the safety and wellbeing of our citizens.

As a first-grade teacher of 33 years, I became well acquainted with human nature. If there is one thing I learned well, it is that the result of removing enforcement or consequences for bad behavior is the increase of that bad behavior. We must only think back to our school days to remember what happened when the teacher left the classroom!

One can clearly observe the results of what happens when communities quit enforcing laws. We only need to look as close as our neighbors to the north in Minneapolis where we see murder rates skyrocketing, car jackings becoming commonplace, rampant theft and people fearful to even travel through or visit that city.

A few years ago, California made the decision to downgrade the penalty (and as a result, the enforcement) of non-violent theft for items valued below $950. The result? Criminals now brazenly walk into stores and scoop up hundreds of dollars of products knowing there will be no consequences. Store shelves are often no longer stocked and important neighborhood merchants are exiting cities like San Francisco.

Finally, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of obeying law enforcement officers. If you experience the unfortunate circumstance of being placed under arrest, please do not resist officers. Comply and save any grievances you have for the courts.

Making quick reaction laws like the one that is being proposed can cause just as many problems as they are trying to solve. Government so often makes laws that cause numerous unintended consequences.  We must take the time to listen to all perspectives and consider carefully before making important decisions like these.

Thank you to both Sheriff Freitag and Sheriff Rose for taking the time to share their thoughts with me. I always appreciate learning about issues from those with “boots on the ground” experience.

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea is the District 27A representative.