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Traffic stops in Memphis go back to ‘normal’ after Gov. Bill Lee signs bill into law

As expected, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a law nullifying ordinances that curtail local law enforcement agencies ability to conduct pretextual traffic stops on Thursday, March 28.

The bill had the support of leaders of the Memphis Police Association. Police union representatives say the law will give local law enforcement the tools to effectively perform their jobs.

“Police have a number of tools in their toolbelts to use. When you have crime – the City of Memphis, as bad as crime is now – you don’t want to limit the amount of tools in their belts they can use to try to stop the crime,” said Matt Cunningham, MPA President during a WKNO interview on Sunday, March 31.

It also overrides the “Driving Equality Act in Honor of Tyre Nichols.”

Overwhelmingly passed, the bill prohibits local governments or officials from enacting local resolutions or ordinances that limit law enforcement agencies from conducting traffic stops “based on observation” or “reasonable suspicion” of a violation of a local ordinance, or a state or federal law.

It was introduced in the Senate, where it passed on March 7. The House passed it a week later, on March 14.

Although the law doesn’t specifically mention Memphis, it is the only city in Tennessee that it applies.

The 29-year-old Nichols was aggressively stopped at a light by members of the MPD’s Scorpion Unit for alleged reckless driving on January 7, 2023. Pulled from his car, he was tasered and pepper sprayed. After fleeing on foot, officers eventually caught up with Nichols less than a mile his mother’s Orange Mound home. For several minutes, five Black MPD officers beat the prone father-of-one. 

He died three days later. 

On January 28, 2023 the Scorpion Unit was disbanded. Five police officers have also been charged second degree murder. All have pleaded not guilty.

After months of wrangling, the Memphis City Council passed the defunct ordinance 13-0 in April 2023. Among the “once standard”  practices it outlawed locally were so-called “pretextual” pullovers for an expired tag, cracked windshield or a broken tail light.

“I would not call it ‘pretextual.’ I would call it ‘upholding the laws here locally,” said John Cunningham, MPA Vice President said Sunday, March 31. “When you get into things like tail lights and bumpers, that’s not just about pulling people over for investigative purposes. It’s a safety issue.” 

First-term Mayor of Memphis Paul Young has said he never supported the ordinance. He has made addressing the city’s crime rate his top priority. 

In a December letter, former Mayor Jim Strickland informed incoming City Council Chairman JB Smiley that he ordered interim Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis not to enforce the ordinances. Davis denied Strickland’s claims. 

Although he voted for the ordinance – along with other reforms – Smiley has also made crime reduction his top priority.

The courts are slated to take up the issue next.

On Friday, March 29 attorneys for Nichol’s family filed a list of people expected to take the stand in the $550 million lawsuit filed against the City of Memphis. Among the prominent names on the list to appear at the civil trial are Davis, along with a who’s who of MPD brass. Nichols family members are also expected to testify in the civil trial, set to begin Jan. 27, 2025. 

 

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