Amid scrutiny, Montgomery Co. police explain why ‘pretext traffic stop’ is not racial profiling

As the U.S. grapples with a reckoning over police practices across the country, police in Montgomery County, Maryland, briefed local lawmakers on what they said were distinctions between a commonly used investigative technique and the illegal practice of pulling over a driver based solely on their race.

“Pretext traffic stops are not racial profiling,” police Capt. Jason Cokinos told the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety Committee in a briefing Thursday. “Everybody has a protection under the U.S. Constitution of the Fourth Amendment, of an unreasonable search and seizure.”

Cokinos cited the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court case Whren vs. United States that found “any traffic offense committed by a driver was a legitimate legal basis for a stop.”

He said Maryland’s appeals courts have issued several rulings supporting the legality of pretext stops.

“There’s a very tight rule book on these types of stops,” Cokinos said. “If an officer observes activity, or has suspicions that that officer wants to investigate, you need to have a legal reason to stop someone in a motor vehicle,” such as a missing license plate or a burned out brake bulb, he said.

Officers, after alerting the pulled-over driver of the minor infraction, “simultaneously, they’re allowed to explore — without delaying the stop — their suspicions.”

Cokinos said there is a clear line between a pretext stop and racial profiling.

“We are not permitted to do enforcement based on someone’s race,” he said. “We are not allowed to discriminate against people’s protected classes, including race, gender, age, etc.”

In July, a report from the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight found that though Black residents made up 18% of the county’s population, they were subject to 32% of all traffic stops and 55% of cases in which an officer used force throughout 2018.

The report also found that Black men were three times as likely as white men to receive any traffic violation in 2019, and Latino men were nearly twice as likely as white men.

“Available data demonstrates wide disparities in police-public interactions by race and ethnicity in the county, especially for traffic stops and violations, arrests, and use of force,” according to the report. “While disparities do not prove biased policing, they signal that unconstitutional policing could be a problem that merits investigation.”

The Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, which the county formed over the summer, is reviewing the county police department’s operations and uncovering underlying racial bias in policing. They’re expected to come up with recommendations for the department by Jan. 18.

After George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody in May, Cokinos said that Montgomery County police have enhanced their training: “We put more emphasis on racial profiling and enforcement, and reiterated our strong policies on that.”

Cokinos said the department teaches that a traffic stop can be an example of positive community engagement, especially since police issue a lot of warnings rather than tickets.

“A warning, with some education, with a good discussion, can leave a person who’s been pulled over with, hopefully, a positive interaction,” he said. “We do not tolerate, nor is it permitted, that officers are rude or not treating someone with respect and dignity.”

Cokinos told committee members a process exists to file complaints — officers will be investigated, and if warranted, handled through the discipline process.

Assistant Police Chief Thomas Didone echoed the sentiment: “The police department does not condone racial profiling, but recognizing the perceptions are reality, we have to be mindful of that and continue to work and train, to move forward on that.”

“Please rest assured; Chief [Marcus] Jones will hold people accountable, if we identify any means of racial profiling or inappropriate conduct,” Didone said.

The Montgomery County Council passed a police use-of-force bill in July that bars the use of chokeholds and limits the use of no-knock warrants.

WTOP’s Nick Iannelli, Dick Uliano and Kate Ryan contributed to this report. 

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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