Ramsey County ends felony prosecutions from low-level stops

Published 7:06 pm Wednesday, September 8, 2021

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ST. PAUL — Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Wednesday that he will no longer prosecute felony charges stemming from most low-level traffic stops, saying it’s time to change a practice that has disproportionately impacted generations of minority communities.

“Recognizing the role we play as prosecutors in perpetuating racial inequities that often result from these types of stops is an important first step in charting a new, less harmful course,” Choi said in a statement.

Choi said his office will not prosecute crimes that are discovered solely because of a low-level traffic stop, such as broken tail light or expired license tabs. He said the new policy does not apply to situations that create a public safety hazard or when a vehicle is stopped because of a dangerous condition.

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Choi said during a news conference that he used to believe that pretextual stops — in which police use a minor violation as a reason to pull someone over and search for a more serious crime — amounted to good policing.

“I no longer believe that,” he said, adding that these stops seldom result in seized contraband.

And sometimes the consequences can be fatal.

In 2016, Philando Castile, who was Black, 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 they had been pulled over because of a broken tail light. Choi’s office prosecuted former St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who was acquitted of manslaughter.

In neighboring Hennepin County, 20-year-old motorist Daunte Wright, who was Black, was killed in April after a former Brooklyn Center police officer pulled him over for expired tabs and for having an air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. Kim Potter has claimed she meant to use her Taser instead of her handgun when she shot Wright. She is scheduled to be tried for manslaughter this fall.

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

In Ramsey County, where Choi is prosecutor, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell told his officers on Wednesday that minor violations should not be used as a primary reason for a traffic stop unless there is an “articulable public safety concern.” The city of Roseville, also in Ramsey County, has also stopped enforcing minor violations that don’t pose a danger or safety concern.

Republican leaders and an association representing public safety professionals were quick to criticize the change.

“Basically, the county attorney just announced his office won’t uphold the law and won’t prosecute those who break it,” Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Executive Director Brian Peters said in a statement. “That’s absurd, and is a slap in the face to victims of crime.”

Senate Public Safety and Judiciary Committee Chair Warren Limmer, a Maple Grove Republican, said the public should be “outraged” and that Choi should be voted out of office.

“The number one role of government is the safety of its citizens,” Limmer said in a statement. “It’s his job to put criminals away, not leave them on the streets. … This change is an offense to the victims of crime — including the people of color, children, and those in poverty. It endangers law enforcement officers doing their jobs, while putting innocent people at risk.”

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said public safety in response to fear-based rhetoric doesn’t work.

“One of the things that I think our officers will appreciate about this policy is, it gives them the opportunity to focus their time, their energy, their resources on the things that actually make us less safe,” Carter said.