Oregon police will soon be unable to pull over motorists solely because they have a burnt out headlight, tail light or brake light, in a bill advocates say will cut down on frivolous stops of people of color.
Senate Bill 1510, passed out of the Oregon House on a 34-24 vote after lengthy debate Thursday. It now heads to the desk of Gov. Kate Brown and, if signed, will take effect immediately.
A year in the making, SB 1510 is a pared-back version of a bill advocates hoped to pass during last year’s session. And while it’s gained most attention for its provisions around traffic stops, proponents say the legislation will help address broader racial inequities in Oregon’s justice system.
Other provisions require officers to inform motorists they have the right to decline a search of their vehicle and to obtain written or recorded documentation that a driver consented to a search. It also modifies the conditions that can be set for people on parole and probation and steers $10 million toward helping groups disproportionately impacted by the justice system access housing and social services.
“At its core, each policy included in this bill will make Oregon’s criminal justice system more equitable and enhance community safety across the state,” said state Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, who is Black. “Many of my colleagues in this chamber do not have the lived experience of negative interactions with law enforcement, and thank God you don’t.”
Opponents cite safety worries
While much of SB 1510 had broad support, the bill’s prohibition on traffic stops for a single faulty headlight, taillight, brake light or license plate light has made it a contentious issue in Salem.
Law enforcement lobbyists have argued those provisions will make Oregon roads less safe, and that burnt-out lights can confuse or limit the reaction times of other drivers. Opponents also argue the rules won’t necessarily do anything to end the frivolous pretext stops that some officers use to justify searching vehicles.
“There’s so many motor vehicle codes that a police officer could likely find any other reason besides the ones listed to pull somebody over if they want to,” said state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, as the Senate debated SB 1510 earlier this week. “Not that that’s a great thing. I’m just saying that this is nibbling around the edges.”
Lawmakers who support the bill partly agreed: “There’s hundreds of reasons to stop a vehicle,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who convened a workgroup to refashion the proposal after a far broader bill failed in 2021. “What we’ve said is we’ve taken five of those small tools in the toolbox and said, ‘You cannot stop someone primarily for that.’”
Prozanski and others note that, while police would not be able to pull people over for broken lights under the bill, they could still ticket a driver for those infractions if they pull them over for another reason. Police are also still free to stop a motorist if they find that their burned-out lights are preventing the vehicle from operating safely.
Among the bill’s supporters was Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, who described being regularly pulled over for pretext stops by police.
“Until my hair started to turn gray, I was pulled over once a year in my neighborhood to ask whether I was lost,” said Frederick, who is Black. He added that he’d learned on the way down to Salem on Tuesday that a headlight on his car had burned out.
“I’m going to be especially concerned until I get that fixed,” he said. “I don’t know whether someone’s pulling me over for that to help, or because they have decided that this is an opportunity. That’s a concern that I deal with every day.”
A parent’s fears
Bynum spoke at length Thursday about her own worries that her children would be pulled over or targeted by law enforcement based on their race. That’s what Bynum says happened in 2019, when her teenage daughter, Christine, was hassled by a mall security guard for hanging out in the parking lot with friends.
“My daughter is still traumatized about how she was treated because of a hunch and an inconsistent application of the rules, which is what we’re talking about today,” Bynum said. “This fear of being targeted for minor transgressions has guided our decision on where to make our home, and where we’re willing to send our children to college.”
State Rep. Travis Nelson, D-Portland, said Thursday he’d been pulled over dozens of times, including instances in which police said he had a malfunctioning light but he did not.
“I’ve been frisked during a traffic stop, I’ve been personally searched, my car has been searched,” said Nelson, who is Black. “I have never been arrested, but part of me always fears for my safety each time a cop gets behind me with lights and sirens.”
Though police can still stop motorists for a wide range of infractions, advocates of SB 1510 have argued that the new prohibitions could force officers to consider whether they are pulling a motorist over for legitimate safety reasons or because of bias.
A recent study by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission turned up evidence that motorists of color are targeted disproportionately in some jurisdictions. For instance, the report found evidence that Oregon State Police issue traffic tickets to people of color more frequently than white drivers. It also found some indication that Portland Police cite or arrest Black motorists more often than white motorists, though those findings were not conclusive. Oregon’s population is 75% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Rep. Rick Lewis, a Silverton Republican and former police chief, argued Thursday that data from the Criminal Justice Commission was not specific to the lighting violations impacted by SB 1510, and did not tell lawmakers enough about whether those infractions are used inappropriately.
“Let’s repeal the laws rather than tell an officer who was sworn to uphold the laws that they should no longer do their job,” Lewis said. “Frankly, it should be more concerning to us that an officer needs to look for some other reason to make a stop in order to provide a warning.”
Three Democrats joined Republicans in voting against the bill.