Race, Cops, and Traffic Stops

Angela J. Davis, American University Washington College of Law


This article discusses the Supreme Court's failure to provide a clear and effective remedy for discriminatory pretextual traffic stops. The first part explores the discretionary nature of pretextual stops and their discriminatory effect on African-Americans and Latinos. Then, the article examines Whren v. United States, a Supreme Court case in which the petitioners claimed that these “pretextual stops” violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution and are racially discriminatory. The Supreme Court rejected the claim, upholding the constitutionality of pretextual stops based on probable cause and noting that claims of racial discrimination must be challenged under the Equal Protection Clause. The article then addresses the ineffectiveness of the Court's proposed remedy for both criminal defendants and motorists who are not arrested. Finally, it stresses the need for creative legal and policy-based solutions. It argues that when people of color experience injustices that are tolerated and even sanctioned by courts and other criminal justice officials, they develop distrust and disrespect for the justice system. That lack of faith translates into hopelessness, frustration, and even violence. The article concludes with a call to develop nondiscriminatory law enforcement policies and effective legal remedies that are accessible to all aggrieved citizens in order to help restore the integrity of the legal process and the trust of all citizens.