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Pennsylvania Inspector General Reviewing State Police Traffic Stop Tactics

The review follows an investigation by The Appeal and Spotlight PA, which found that troopers were using minor traffic stops to illegally detain and search motorists along highways.

The graduation ceremony of Pennsylvania State Police 142nd Cadet Class on Sept. 4, 2015.Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The Pennsylvania inspector general’s office said Wednesday it is reviewing tactics used by state police to search vehicles during traffic stops, following an investigation by The Appeal and Spotlight PA.

The two news organizations found that troopers in the south-central region of the state, whose duties included interdiction—the practice of searching for and stopping the trafficking of drugs and contraband along highways—used minor traffic violations as a way to stop motorists, detain them, and search their vehicles illegally.

“The Office of State Inspector General is reviewing the available information to ensure that protocols were followed and training is appropriate regarding these traffic stops,” Jonathan Hendrickson, a spokesperson for the office, told Spotlight PA, which was the first to report the state watchdog’s announcement. “The work of this review is well within the agency’s mission.”

Governor Tom Wolf directed the inspector general to conduct an independent review “to be sure protocols were followed and training is appropriate regarding these types of stops,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, Wolf’s spokesperson. She said that although training troopers in interdiction tactics remained a top priority for the administration, “actions should never be taken outside of those protocols taught in training, and reports should be completed using the proper protocols.”

The Appeal and Spotlight PA reviewed 32 criminal cases brought by troopers with the interdiction unit since 2016 in Cumberland, Franklin, and Dauphin counties in central Pennsylvania. Of those cases, eight were thrown out in court because judges determined the troopers had violated motorists’ constitutional rights by holding them for longer than allowed and searching the vehicles without sufficient evidence. 

In one instance, two men were pulled over for an unlit license plate for hours while troopers questioned them and searched their vehicle. Officers found two bags of heroin inside a DVD case in the trunk of the vehicle. Troopers charged the men with felony drug delivery, but the case was thrown out after a judge suppressed the evidence because of the illegal search. 

In the cases reviewed, troopers were using nearly identical language in each affidavit of probable cause. These documents must be unique to each individual case and simply copying language from other affidavits is a violation of policy, a spokesperson for the state police told The Appeal and Spotlight PA.

“The four corners of the affidavit is what establishes probable cause,” Lt. Col. Scott Price, deputy commissioner of operations, told the two organizations in a previous interview. “We shouldn’t be seeing boilerplate language.” 

The investigation also found that Black people were disproportionately charged in cases arising from these stops. Despite accounting for only 10 percent of the population in the three counties, Black people were charged more than 50 percent of the time. 

The inspector general did not give a time frame of when the review would be complete or if the review would go beyond the interdiction unit. But the move comes during a time of national unrest over police violence, and large-scale protests in Philadelphia and across the state.

In July, after Democratic lawmakers in the state House demanded action on police reform, Wolf signed two bills that provide more access to police disciplinary records when departments hire officers, and more police training in areas including de-escalation. Wolf also announced a set of executive actions in June aimed at reforming policing and giving communities more oversight of their departments.