Last year, Philadelphia’s city council passed an ordinance called “Achieving Driving Equality.” The bill, signed into law in October and going into effect earlier this month, prohibits the Philadelphia Police Department from stopping drivers who are violating certain aspects of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code. Unfortunately, the ordinance ignores common sense, stops the police department from enforcing the duly enacted laws of Pennsylvania, and disregards established precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court. In short, the city has joined Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in fostering disorder and lawlessness in the City of Brotherly Love.
To understand the ordinance, it’s important to review why vehicle codes exist. In Pennsylvania, drivers must register their cars and get them inspected regularly. Drivers must display their license plates on their cars so they can be identified, maintain working lights, and operate vehicles with bumpers. Nobody wants a defective car with no lights and no identification crashing through the streets of Philadelphia. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that if police observe an actual vehicle code violation, they can stop the driver, even if the police are using the stop to check for other criminal conduct as well. Of course, the police are not allowed to pull someone over based solely on their race, age, or other protected status.
Under the newly enacted ordinance, however, the city forbids the police from stopping a vehicle for an expired registration; for a light being out on a vehicle; for a license plate not being secured in the regular position on the back of a car; for operating without valid inspection; for a bumper violation; for having material that obstructs views out of the car from the front, side, or rear windows; and for other violations. Philadelphia’s Democratic-majority city council, Mayor Jim Kenney, and the public defender’s office, which helped craft the legislation, stated that the bill’s purpose was to stop an allegedly disproportionate number of minority drivers from being pulled over for such infractions. Now, Philadelphia is the first major city in the United States to adopt a blanket ban on such traffic stops.
It’s apparent that none of Philadelphia’s officials have bothered to take a statistics course. They fail to acknowledge that there may in fact be more minority drivers who are violating these vehicle laws in Philadelphia than non-minority drivers. If that is the case, then the police are simply pulling over the people who are violating the law, regardless of race. In a famous and controversial study of driving habits on a major highway in New Jersey, the Justice Department found that minority drivers were speeding much more often than white drivers, possibly explaining why the police were issuing more speeding tickets to those minority drivers.
Besides this major theoretical flaw, the novel Philadelphia bill may have disastrous and long-lasting practical consequences for safety in an ever-more-violent city. Consider just a few scenarios.
A Philadelphia police officer sees a battered old SUV driving without an inspection sticker. In San Diego, a police officer would stop the car and check it for safety. But in Philadelphia, under the Achieving Driving Equality bill, the police officer has to let the SUV keep going. It turns out that the SUV didn’t have an inspection sticker because it was riding on bald tires and had defective brakes – it had failed inspection. Two days later, the driver of the SUV tries to slam on his brakes when three little kids run across an intersection on Cobbs Creek Parkway. The brakes fail, the SUV hurtles through the intersection, and three children are dead.
Another scenario: a Philadelphia cop sees a dark-colored Ford Fusion operating without a license plate on the rear bumper because the bumper is missing. Instead, the car has a temporary tag tucked into the back window. In Dallas, the police would pull the car over. Under Philadelphia’s new law, the police are not allowed to conduct a traffic stop, identify and cite the driver, and fix the violation. Two days later, police are reviewing video from a drive-by shooting in North Philadelphia with what looks like the same car carrying the shooters. But there is no visible license plate in the video to check and see to whom the car is registered, and the traffic stop to identify who was driving the car never happened. Another Philadelphia homicide goes unsolved.
More unnerving scenarios: a Philadelphia detective is staking out a notorious drug house, known for sending kilos of fentanyl-laced heroin to the infamous streets of Philly’s Kensington neighborhood. The detective sees a male with three prior convictions for drug trafficking jump into a car in front of the house, carrying two duffle bags of what is likely to be drugs. The car isn’t displaying any registration. In New York City, a detective would pull the car over for the registration violation and try to develop probable cause to search the bags. In Philadelphia, the detective has to watch the drug dealer and the drugs disappear.
Meanwhile, in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia, a man with an open arrest warrant for a homicide gets into his girlfriend’s car late one night. He’s carrying a stolen gun, the one used in the homicide. Unknown to him, the car he is driving has a broken taillight. He passes four police cars as he drives from West Philly through Center City and then up to North Philadelphia, where he ditches the gun with a friend. In Miami, he would have been stopped for the taillight violation, then arrested for the homicide, and the gun from the homicide would have been recovered. In Philadelphia, the murderer gets to drive blissfully by the Philadelphia police cruisers. The cycle of violence continues for another night.
Philadelphia’s politicians may have had good intentions when they passed the Achieving Driving Equality bill, but the new measure rests on flawed statistical assumptions. More important, the ordinance is stripping the police of a vital law enforcement tool, one that has passed muster at the Supreme Court. Aided and abetted by the public defender’s office, the city council has decided to hobble police just as Philadelphia is experiencing a record-breaking number of homicides, with dead bodies continuing to stack up every day. The new law is intended to shield minorities from receiving traffic citations, but these same minority citizens are overwhelmingly the victims of the deadly lawlessness currently menacing the city – a lawlessness that this wrongheaded legislation will only worsen.
Sometimes, the best way to get out of a hole is to put down the shovel. City council and Mayor Kenney, are you listening?
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
Tom Hogan has served as a federal prosecutor, local prosecutor, and elected district attorney. He currently is in private practice.