‘Slap in the face to victims’: Ramsey County attorney decides to stop prosecuting some felonies

One state senator said the policy will negatively affect people of color, children, and the poor — the same people St. Paul and Ramsey County officials are claiming to help.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi speaks at a press conference Wednesday. (Ramsey County/YouTube)

Minnesota’s Ramsey County, home to the city of St. Paul, will no longer prosecute felonies resulting from “low-level” traffic stops.

According to a Wednesday morning press release, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the new policy will “fundamentally change” the use of “non-public safety” traffic stops by police. He and other officials then held a press conference Wednesday to explain the policy and take questions.

Choi’s press release states that “non-public safety” stops occur when a police officer pulls someone over for a “minor infraction,” often equipment violations — such as a broken tail light or tinted windows — in an attempt to “seek evidence of a more serious crime.”

The press release claims that these types of stops “disproportionately” affect “drivers of color,” thereby “eroding trust and confidence in the justice system.”

“As leaders in the justice system, we must step forward and fundamentally change a longstanding systemic injustice that has impacted generations of people in our community and across this country,” said Choi. “Recognizing the role we play as prosecutors in perpetuating racial inequities that often result from these types of stops is an important first step in charting a new, less harmful course.”

These sentiments were echoed at Wednesday’s press conference, which also featured remarks from St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, Ramsey County Board Chair Toni Carter, philanthropist Eric Jolly, St. Paul NAACP spokesman Tyrone Terrill, and Deputy Chief Julie Maidment of the St. Paul Police Department.

“We have a vision of a vibrant community where all are safe and healthy and valued and thrive,” Toni Carter said. “And we know we can’t get there with an us-them mentality. We are working to listen to those who have been involved in these traffic stops, who have experienced the building of records, based upon one incident after the other, to determine what really works for all of us.”

“It does not work for us to continue to subject individuals in our community to unreasonable stops, searches, and seizure,” she added. “That does not build a trajectory toward improved lives and contribution to our community.”

The policy is supported by St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell and Roseville Police Chief Erika Scheider, who have directed their officers to “minimize non-public safety stops and focus their efforts instead on conduct most threatening to the public’s safety.”

Choi’s office noted that the policy does not apply “when a vehicle is stopped due to a dangerous condition.”

“A dangerous condition exists when an improper or malfunctioning piece of motor vehicle equipment creates a substantial, articulable, and identifiable risk of injury to any person,” his office explained.

The policy does, however, apply to cases in which a vehicle is searched “based solely on consent, without any other articulable suspicion.”

The new policy was met with swift criticism. In a Wednesday press release, Minnesota state Sen. Warren Limmer said citizens should be “outraged” and that county attorney Choi should be voted out of office.

“It’s his job to put criminals away, not leave them on the streets,” Limmer said. “Violent crime is still on the rise and this is absolutely the wrong direction prosecutors should be going.”

The state senator believes the policy will negatively affect people of color, children, and the poor — the same people St. Paul officials are claiming to help — and puts police officers at greater risk in the line of duty.

Sen. Michelle Benson, a candidate for governor, said the decision will make Minnesota “less safe.”

“This disregard for public safety follows Walz’s playbook of not prioritizing safer communities,” she said.

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association, the state’s largest police union, called Choi’s new policy “absurd” and a “slap in the face to victims of crime.”

“Basically, the county attorney just announced his office won’t uphold the law and won’t prosecute those who break it,” the union said in a statement. “Ramsey County residents be warned: those that break the law won’t even get a slap on the wrist — they’ll get a high-five from the county attorney and be left to commit more, and more serious, offenses. Reduction of crime and public safety for all should be our focus as the crime rate escalates — and this isn’t it.”