Prosecutor dismisses cops’ concerns on traffic stop policies

Siemon: ‘We fully considered their concerns and chose not to adopt them’

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FRIDAY, July 30 — Ingham County Prosecuting Attorney Carol Siemon said that she carefully considered concerns from local police agencies before she rolled out a new policy that prevents drivers pulled over in minor traffic stops from facing other charges for possession of contraband.

But “We fully considered their concerns and chose not to adopt them,” Siemon explained to City Pulse in an emailed statement. “They were not ignored, but it is important to keep in mind that different parts of the criminal legal system can legitimately come from different perspectives.”

But despite “legitimate differences of opinion,” with local cops, she enacted the change anyway.

The policy announced on Tuesday directs prosecutors to deny warrant requests for possession of drugs, stolen property and illegal firearms if they’re discovered during unrelated minor traffic stops like for illegal window tints, expired registrations, suspended licenses or broken tail lights.

Siemon said cops have been known to use those low-level crimes — which she labels as “pretextual stops” — as reasons to pursue other charges unrelated to the initial traffic stop. The policy calls those encounters “fishing expeditions” that disproportionately target Black people. 

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth and a cadre of local police chiefs quickly gathered for a press conference on Wednesday to protest the prosecutorial directive. Wriggelsworth labeled it as “yet another policy” that gives criminals in Lansing a free pass to break the law.

“This is justice for whom? The only logical answer is the offender,” Wriggelsworth said.

Wriggelsworth said cops expressed displeasure to Siemon last week but “nothing changed.”

Police chiefs in Meridian and Lansing townships also told City Pulse that their concerns were disregarded in several internal conversations leading up to the changes. And while some top cops had still expected continued collaboration, they were blindsided by the announcement. 

“She told us it was going to be postponed and rolled out in August, and then she sent an email after 5 p.m. on Monday and it came out the next morning,” said Meridian Police Chief Ken Plaga. “If you want this policy to change, I think it’s going to rely on a change in prosecutors.”

Lansing Township Chief John Joseph said he was made aware of imminent change on July 20.

“She stated that she was going forward with the policy change, which I think was her original intent regardless of the feedback she received,” Joseph told City Pulse. “It was my impression that very few, if any of them, myself included, agreed with the policy or how it was enacted.”

Joseph also added: “Our meetings were just a formality or justification in her mind to convince herself or to be able to say that she consulted law enforcement, which as you can read from my comments, is not an accurate description of how this policy was formulated or enacted.”

Siemon said that she had asked top cops to provide their opinions on a draft policy as early as July 2 and had also then planned to hold a public forum to elicit more feedback from the public.

At that point, she also declined to provide a copy of the draft to City Pulse because releasing a preliminary decision on internal policy directives had carried the potential to “create confusion.”

The policy was announced without any of those planned public forums about three weeks later.

“I gave them a draft early on and copious materials before and after we met in person. I also asked numerous times (dating back over a year) for them to provide me materials or more acceptable policies,” Siemon told City Pulse this week. “If you look at national discussions about reform prosecutors like me are making, I think you will see the same fear-based refrain.”

She also added: “The sky is not falling.”

Joseph, on the other hand, maintained that racial disparities in traffic stops have more to do with poverty, employment and access to education than they do with any law enforcement response. 

Plaga said his officers will continue to lawfully seize any contraband found during traffic stops, but worries that the lack of subsequent criminal charges could help encourage future crime.

“We have policies in place. We’re an accredited agency. It’s not like we’ve just been stopping people, walking up and searching their cars,” he added. “We can still work to recover any stolen property, but for the people who are still being victimized, where is the sense of justice here?”

The new policy does not prohibit or discourage lawfully seizing or forensically testing contraband. It’s also labeled as an “exercise in prosecutorial discretion” that “does not create new legal rights.” It notes that exceptions are possible, pending approval from top prosecutors.

Among the criminal charges that will no longer be pursued in Ingham County based solely on an unrelated traffic stop: possession of a controlled substance; receiving and concealing stolen property; minor in possession of alcohol; carrying a concealed weapon; possession of brass knuckles; possession of a firearm in a vehicle and possession of a firearm in public by a minor.

As of this week, those charges will only be authorized by Siemon’s office if the traffic stop was necessary to protect the public or if cops had a separate investigatory reason for the stop.

For example, a broken taillight that leads to consent for a search in which cocaine or an unregistered pistol is discovered would normally lead to a controlled substance or firearm charge. Absent another reason for the stop, Siemon will no longer authorize those charges.

Wriggelsworth and Interim Lansing Police Chief Ellery Sosebee said the policy has no impact on day-to-day responsibilities of local cops, noting that their officers will continue their usual patrols.

Siemon, of course, can always reject any warrant requests that continue to come to her office. The impact of the reforms, instead, hinges on prosecutors' actually adhering to the new policy, said Scott Hughes, Ingham County juvenile justice and community outreach coordinator. 

He also told City Pulse: “Not everything can be resolved by meetings. There were conversations, and each side came away with an accurate understanding of the other’s position.”

Siemon said pretextual stops have disproportionately targeted Black people in the county, often do not pose an immediate risk to public safety and have led to unnecessary detainments.

Instead, prosecutors are now being asked to “carefully scrutinize” all warrant requests that arise from traffic stops and deny them if the stop was for anything that didn’t pose a safety risk or if the officer was found to have “impermissibly prolonged” the encounter, according to the policy.

All possession of contraband crimes arising out of a vehicle search tied to a traffic stop that does not pose an immediate risk to public safety will also be denied under Siemon’s new policy.

“Routine traffic stops should not become ‘fishing expeditions,’” according to the new policy.

Even for traffic stops that do pose a genuine risk to public safety, prosecutors have also been asked to consider why the stop was public safety related as well as evaluate the reason for any subsequent searches. For warrants to be approved, prosecutors must be convinced that the initial infraction poses an “actual danger” to a person or property, according to the new policy.

Siemon said her office maintains countywide authority over whether to issue criminal charges — including sole discretion over whether to deny a warrant request that is “not in the interests of justice.” The new policy is “intended to promote equity, justice and fairness” in those decisions.

Evidence shows that traffic stops for things that do not pose an immediate public safety risk can often reflect racial bias. Siemon also noted that local cops have historically stopped, questioned and searched people of color at much higher rates than white people.

Nationwide, Black people are significantly more likely than white people to be stopped for a traffic violation. After a traffic stop, Black and Hispanic people are also significantly more likely to be searched for contraband, according to research recently compiled by Siemon’s office.

Preliminary data from the Vera Institute for Justice also shows that racial disparity carries over locally in cases charged. Black and Hispanic people account for about 41% of misdemeanor cases and 54% of felony cases yet only represent about 12% of the county’s total population.

In May, the Brooklyn Center City Council passed a package of sweeping public safety reforms that include a prohibition on arrests for low-level offenses and using unarmed civilians to handle minor traffic violations. Washtenaw County prosecutors also crafted a similar policy in January that prevents unrelated criminal charges from being filed based solely on minor traffic stops.

It’s still unclear how prosecutors plan to gauge the efficacy of the new policy as it aligns with its goals to curb police discrimination. Hughes said that Siemon’s office currently doesn’t have a way to track cases that arise specifically from the types of traffic stops specified in the policy.

Last July, former Lansing Police Chief Daryl Green also enacted policies that prohibit officers from even initiating traffic stops for minor traffic violations, including for defective equipment. In the six months that followed, Black drivers still accounted for about 35% of traffic stops in Lansing despite making up about 22% of the city’s population, according to U.S. Census data.

Sosebee attended but didn’t speak at the recent press conference protest. It’s unclear why he would be opposed to the changes, especially considering that Lansing cops have been banned for more than a year from stopping drivers for minor traffic violations anyway. Mayor Andy Schor has also repeatedly touted that enforcement shift as a racial equity reform on the campaign trail. 

This week, Sosebee described the ban as only a “reduced interest” in defective equipment violations. He and Schor both dodged questions on whether these stops are still being done, instead relying on an ambiguous statement: “We will continue to protect, preserve, and defend the rights of the citizens based on the relevant legislative enactments and judicial rulings, as we work through one of the most gun violence plagued times in the history of Lansing.” 

Schor also declined to say whether Sosebee was paid to attend the press conference protest.

City records have also showcased a dramatic decline in traffic stops this year. Between 2016 and 2019, LPD conducted an annual average of 6,752 traffic stops. In 2020, local cops conducted 3,577 traffic stops amid the pandemic — about a 48% decrease from 2019. 

And between January and June, LPD only recorded 434 traffic stops, setting pace for a record-low annual total of fewer than 1,000 traffic stops and even fewer traffic tickets.

This month, however, at least 91 traffic tickets for speeding and reckless driving were issued in Lansing, a threefold increase from the last nine months, according to Police Department data.

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