The Maine House voted Thursday against a proposal to reduce police traffic stops that proponents argue disproportionately affect people of color.

A bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Victoria Morales of South Portland would prohibit police officers from pulling over drivers for a host of minor traffic offenses. Those include having a license plate light out, driving in the passing lane without passing, a loud muffler, operating after suspension, hanging an object from a rearview mirror, improper display of a license plate or having a plate that’s covered by snow or dirt.

Enforcement of those infractions would be allowed only if the vehicle was pulled over for another public safety reason, such as running a stop sign, speeding or erratic driving.

The bill would also establish a grace period for vehicle registrations, and prohibit police from stopping a vehicle with a registration expired for fewer than 150 days or an inspection sticker expired for less than seven months. The original version of the bill would have also included seat belt violations, but that provision was removed.

The House resoundingly defeated the bill, 77-60, with 18 Democrats joining unified opposition by Republicans. It will go to a vote in the Senate, too, but the margin of defeat all but kills any chance of it becoming law.

Morales said Maine State Police conduct nearly 90,000 traffic stops every year, and that some have little to do with vehicle or public safety. She argued that focusing on traffic stops for minor violations only diverts police resources from more serious crimes and erodes public trust in police.

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“Low-level traffic stops can create flashpoints of confrontations that too often become dangerous for both officers and motorists,” Morales said. “This bill is simply a small step toward redefining public safety (and) addressing racial disparities in traffic stops by lifting up the voices of Maine people.”

Opponents of the bill, which include law enforcement and the Maine Municipal Association, said that requiring police to ignore certain traffic violations would send the wrong message: that state laws do not matter. They noted that drug arrests and felony apprehensions have been made as the result of traffic stops. And some said there is little evidence that racial profiling is happening in Maine. The state has not collected data to determine racial disparities in traffic stops.

Rep. Richard Pickett, D-Dixfield, opposed the bill. The former state trooper and Maine State Police detective, and current police chief of his hometown, said police rely on voluntary compliance with traffic laws, which only works with the threat of enforcement. Because the state does not have data to show that racial profiling is occurring in Maine, lawmakers should not change laws, Pickett said.

“We don’t really know how much of it is going on in our state right now but we heard about it often and it’s time for us to find out,” he said. “It’s one thing to take measures against profiling when it actually occurs, but it’s another thing to make our public roads more dangerous by rendering laws designed to reduce those dangers unenforceable.”

But proponents have pushed back. During a public hearing last month, the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine argued that national data show that traffic stops disproportionately affect low income people, Black people and people of color.

In testimony to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, ACLU Policy Counsel Michael Kebede noted that Maine State Trooper John Darcy was recorded describing a Black driver he pulled over as looking like “a thug” because “he’s wearing a wife beater,” or white tank top, and “he’s got dreads.” Darcy pulled over the motorist for driving in the center lane of the turnpike without passing any vehicles.

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Data about racial profiling in Maine is hard to come by. Lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring police departments to begin collecting racial data of people who are are stopped for traffic infractions, and Gov. Janet Mills allowed it to become law without her signature. But that law doesn’t take effect until July 1, 2023.

Some Maine police departments, including Portland and South Portland, have analyzed data on arrests and race and found clear disparities. In Portland, for example, Black people represented 8 percent of the city’s population in 2019 but 17 percent of arrests, a disparity that mirrors national data.

Lawmakers on Thursday cited anecdotal evidence and personal experience with loved ones to illustrate why the bill is needed.

Morales said her friend, who is Black, was filled with fear as an officer approached her vehicle with his hand on his weapon during a traffic stop. When she relayed that fear to the officer, he allegedly said, “that was the intent.”

“My friend is often treated this way and often pulled over,” Morales said. “She’s terrified that her 15-year-old son will soon be getting his license and will be treated this way and worse.”

Morales pointed to several high-profile police killings in the U.S. that occurred as a result of traffic stops, including Daunte Wright in 2021 and Philandro Castile in 2016.

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Rep. Suzanne Salisbury, D-Westbrook, said she has had “the talk” with her biracial son about what to do – and what not to do – if he is ever pulled over by police. She advised her son to keep his hands on the wheel, do has he is told and don’t talk back or ask questions.

“As the stepmom of a biracial son, I can tell you we have had that conversation,” Salisbury said. “My husband is a retired K-9 officer, but we still had to have that conversation.”

Rep. Denise Tepler, D-Topsham, said she is the mother of two young men who are Black and have been pulled over more than she and her husband have during over their 38 years in Maine. And that’s after she took her sons to the local police station to meet the chief and other officers in an effort to build a positive relationship, she said.

“It is really a problem and it’s frightening,” Tepler said. “Structural racism is no individual officer’s fault. It is unconscious bias, but yet it has to be stopped. We must stop the unconscious behavior that leads to the stopping of way more – far more – African Americans and people of color than people with white skin.”

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