Ramsey County Attorney John Choi on Wednesday announced that his office will no longer prosecute most felony cases arising from low-level traffic stops, an effort aimed at reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Choi rolled out the new policy, which he described as a nation-leading collaboration between the county and cities within its jurisdiction, with the stated hope of building trust between law enforcement and communities of color. In St. Paul, Black motorists are four times more likely to be pulled over than white motorists, he said.
"We do not want to incentivize that type of policing," Choi said at a news conference Wednesday.
Police critics have long argued that "pretextual" traffic stops — in which officers use minor traffic or equipment violations as legal justification for pulling over someone they wish to investigate — lead to racial profiling and inequitable law enforcement. Calls for reform amplified in Minnesota after the deaths of Philando Castile and Daunte Wright, two Black men killed by police during traffic stops for equipment violations.
A growing body of research also argues pretextual stops do little to curb crime, Choi said.
Under the new policy, his office will decline to prosecute felony cases — such as those involving illegal possession of drugs or firearms — if evidence is discovered during a traffic stop for a nonpublic safety violation like expired tabs, objects dangling from mirrors or a burned-out taillight. The policy makes exceptions for cases that endanger public safety.
The County Attorney's Office will also not prosecute cases resulting from vehicle searches conducted without probable cause — which Choi said he hopes will discourage officers from using minor infractions to obtain consent to search individuals without suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.
"Nonpublic safety stops have caused unnecessary trauma and disparities for people and neighborhoods who for generations have had to have the talk with our children about surviving these incidents," Ramsey County Board Chairwoman Toni Carter said. She and other local leaders, including officials from east metro cities that have implemented or are exploring complementary policies, joined Choi at the news conference in a show of support.
Choi said his opinion on traffic stops has changed over time, particularly after his office prosecuted Jeronimo Yanez, the former St. Anthony police officer who killed Castile. A jury found Yanez not guilty after a three-week trial in 2017.
County prosecutors handle traffic-stop cases involving juveniles or felony charges. Misdemeanor violations — which make up the majority of traffic-stop citations — are prosecuted by city attorneys.
In Roseville, Police Chief Erika Scheider said officers have been told since 2017 to focus on responding to driving behavior that leads to crashes. As a result, 80% of the city's traffic stops in recent years have been for moving violations.
"We really wanted our priorities to match what we were hearing from the community," Scheider said in an interview. The Police Department officially updated its policy in August to reflect the change in practice, she added.
In a memo to staff Wednesday, St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell gave officers similar instructions to prioritize traffic enforcement efforts that endanger residents, such as speeding and reckless driving.
He said St. Paul is working on a secondary notification system that will allow the city to mail warnings or citations to vehicle owners for minor infractions. That could help reduce the workload for the department, which has cut down on traffic enforcement efforts due to staffing and budget constraints, Axtell has said.
"I want to be perfectly clear: We should not use these violations as a primary reason for a traffic stop unless there's an articulable public safety concern," Axtell wrote.
At Wednesday's news conference, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said the city is planning to incorporate those efforts into written code. The St. Paul City Attorney's Office is also expected to announce new guidance for handling traffic stops "very soon," he said.
"We've tried building a public safety framework on responding to fear-based rhetoric and anecdotes. We've tried that. It has not worked," said Carter, who has launched a suite of alternative public safety initiatives since taking office in 2018.
In statements Wednesday, police chiefs from St. Anthony, Maplewood and New Brighton also described plans to re-evaluate how they handle traffic stops.
But Brian Peters, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, lambasted Choi's announcement Wednesday, calling it "a slap in the face to victims of crime."
"Ramsey County residents be warned: Those that break the law won't even get a slap on the wrist — they'll get a high-five from the county attorney and be left to commit more, and more serious, offenses," the statement said.
Multiple Minnesota Republicans echoed Peters with statements reminiscent of a failed push to implement a statewide policy limiting traffic stops earlier this year.
"Violent crime is still on the rise and this is absolutely the wrong direction prosecutors should be going," Senate Public Safety and Judiciary Committee Chairman Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said in a statement.
Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, noted in response that violent crime in St. Paul has an especially large impact on the Black community.
"So if we can support this policy, then I say to other communities: Be quiet. Give it a chance to work first," he said.
Choi also responded, pointing to academic studies that say pretextual traffic stops rarely lead to the discovery of illegal contraband.
The St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation is raising funds to collect data and monitor the results of the county's new policy. The money will also help pay for alternative notification systems and voucher programs for those unable to afford to fix equipment violations.
Last month, the Minneapolis Police Department announced it would stop conducting traffic stops for a trio of low-level offenses. Ramsey County's policy tackles a more extensive list of violations, eliciting praise from national organizations.
"We believe that other jurisdictions — particularly prosecutors — should look to this policy as an example of what it looks like to center racial equity and pursue a set of policies that will ultimately make all of us safer," said Akhi Johnson of the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit working with Ramsey County on the policy.