HJR 687/736

Special Subcommittee Studying "Driving While Black" and Traffic Stops of Minority Drivers

October 26, 1999, Norfolk

North Carolina Statute

Committee staff reviewed briefly the recently enacted North Carolina "driving while black" statute. This legislation (Senate Bill 76, 1999) requires the North Carolina Division of Criminal Statistics (within the Department of Justice) to collect, correlate, and maintain specified information on traffic stops by North Carolina state law-enforcement officers. In addition to the total number of drivers stopped, the following information must be provided for each stop:

Public Hearing

In a public hearing that followed, the committee heard from 11 speakers, including state and local law-enforcement officers, social scientists, and private citizens.

Three witness reported that they had been stopped by law-enforcement officers either for no reason or for such vaguely articulated purposes as "searching for drugs" or conducting some sort of "investigation." One speaker worried that, under the pretext of a war on drugs, Virginia was "becoming a police state." Another witness complained that, although he did not own a motor vehicle and did not even have a driver's license, he had been harassed by the police for "walking while black."

Comments by representatives of law-enforcement agencies questioned the usefulness of collecting and reporting traffic stop statistics of the sort required by either the North Carolina statute or by similar legislation proposed by Congressman John Conyers of Michigan. Several speakers urged that even the perception of a "driving while black" problem was sufficient reason for law-enforcement agencies to act aggressively to improve the quality of their recruitment, training, and community relations. Others felt that statistical reporting requirements would prove to be only an additional unproductive onus on already overburdened police officers. It was suggested that statistical reporting could prompt police officers to issue more citations, rather than verbal or written warnings, in order to justify traffic stops, thus increasing rather than decreasing public hostility.

One witness urged the committee not to let "driving while black" concerns prevent favorable consideration of legislation aiming at primary enforcement of Virginia's motor vehicle safety belt law. He pointed to statistical research supporting the proposition that primary enforcement would save lives and not contribute to "driving while black" problems.

Three psychologists from Old Dominion University advised the committee that the usefulness of traffic stop statistics depended greatly on what statistics were collected, how they were collected, and how they were interpreted. They offered to work with the Commonwealth to produce an appropriate and effective program.

The Honorable William P. Robinson, Jr., Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Alan B. Wambold