ST. PAUL — Twenty-year-old Daunte Wright was killed by Brooklyn Center police on Sunday, April 11, when officers were attempting to arrest him, and he tried to flee the scene. He had missed a scheduled court date on previous misdemeanor gun charges.
But the police encounter first began with a traffic stop.
Wright, who was Black, was initially pulled over for his expired registration stickers, or “tags,” on his license plate, police said. His mother, Katie Wright, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that her son called her during the incident and said he was pulled over because he had air fresheners hanging in the rearview mirror.
Since Wright’s death, activists and lawmakers have called into question the role of police traffic stops for minor vehicle infractions, their disproportionate impact on Minnesotans of color, and if they spur unnecessary police interactions that can end tragically.
Among a slate of police and criminal justice reform bills in the Minnesota House is one newly proposed measure by Rep. Cedrick Frazier, D-New Hope, which would limit police authority to stop or detain drivers for minor vehicle violations.
Currently, police officers can pull Minnesotans over for a variety of equipment violations unrelated to their driving itself, such as expired registration tags, improperly displayed license plates, burnt-out lights and more. There is indeed a state law against hanging "objects suspended between the driver and the windshield" on the rearview mirror.
Speaking on his bill to state representatives on Wednesday, April 14, Frazier said Wright’s story and his bill are personal for him. Frazier, who is Black, said he was pulled over by police one night as a teenager when he was borrowing his aunt’s car. He was on his way to hang out with a friend — they were going to see a movie and play video games — and was in a different, “more affluent” neighborhood than his own.
Frazier said the officer pulled him over saying he had a broken taillight. When Frazier showed him his license and the car’s registration and insurance — both in his aunt’s name — the officer didn’t believe him. Ultimately, Frazier said he was detained for about 45 minutes that night while the car was searched.
“That was terrifying. I didn't know what to do,” Frazier said. “It was before cellphones were prevalent, you couldn’t call anyone. What I didn't do is run, didn't make any sudden movements, because I was taught that they fear me more than I fear them. I didn't want to get hurt. ... I just wanted to get back home.”
When he watched the body camera footage of Wright’s traffic stop and ultimate death, Frazier said, “I saw myself in that same moment.”
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“I believe he reacted to that fear,” Frazier continued. “He was scared. He just called his mom before that. He didn't know what to do. He wanted to get home. He wasn’t far from home.”
Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, is cosponsoring the legislation alongside Frazier. During Wednesday’s hearing, she pointed to data collected from the Hennepin County public defender’s office showing that people of color are pulled over for equipment violations at higher rates than white drivers in Minneapolis.
Between 2017 and 2018, Moller said 54% of drivers pulled over in Minneapolis solely for equipment violations were Black, while 30% were white. By comparison, according to the U.S. Census, nearly 64% of Minneapolis residents are white, and about 19% are Black.
Of those who were initially stopped for equipment violations and were then subject to a vehicle search between 2019 and 2020, Moller said 78% were Black drivers, according to the data. However, police actually found guns and drugs more often in the cars of white drivers than of Black.
Frazier on Wednesday said the point of his bill is to stop these traffic stops before they escalate to violence.
“We don't need to create these type of interactions that we’re seeing going in the totally wrong direction, that escalate to the point of death of our Black men,” he said.