ST. PAUL (WCCO) - A Minnesota state lawmaker said he was racially profiled during a traffic stop in St. Paul on the Fourth of July that resulted in a ticket for driving with a suspended license. The city's police chief disputes those claims, calling the encounter "by the books."
St. Paul Police pulled over DFL State Rep. John Thompson, who represents parts of the capital city, early Sunday morning for a missing front license plate, police records show. He was then cited for driving with a suspended license.
Doug Neville, spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said the license was revoked in April 2019 for failing to pay child support. Driving privileges were reinstated days later on Wednesday after Thompson resolved the issue, Neville said.
"I thought we weren't doing pretextual stops in this state. But we are," said Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, at an event Tuesday marking five years since Philando Castile was shot and killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. "We're still getting driving-while-Black tickets here in this state."
St. Paul police said a sergeant stopped Thompson near the intersection of 7th Street East and Wacouta Street on July 4. Thompson identified himself as a state lawmaker and presented a Wisconsin driver's license, and then the sergeant ticketed Thompson after learning his license was suspended in Minnesota, according to department spokesman Steve Linders.
Thompson responded by accusing the officer of racially profiling him, but the sergeant reiterated the stop was for the missing front license plate, which is required by state law, Linders said in an email.
St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell said in a social media post that he reviewed the body-worn camera footage of the stop and spoke with the officer. He concluded the stop "had absolutely nothing to do with the driver's race."
"Simply put, the traffic stop was by the books," Axtell said Friday. "I'm dismayed and disappointed by the state representative's response to the stop. Rather than taking responsibility for his own decisions and actions, he attempted to deflect, cast aspersions and deny any wrongdoing.
WCCO requested the body camera and dash camera video of the stop, but St. Paul Police cited Minnesota law keeping it private until the case is resolved. State law allows body camera footage to become public if the subject agrees; the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association said Saturday that Thompson declined to make the video public, calling the move "irresponsible."
"Rep. Thompson's signature issue at the state legislature was advocating for rapid release of police officer's body camera footage. Now he's blocking the public release of the body camera footage of his own incident with law enforcement this past week," said MPPOA Executive Director Brian Peters. "Constituents have the right to see how their legislator conducted himself, particularly when he made such strong claims about what happened during the traffic stop."
Thompson, serving his first term in the Minnesota Legislature, has been an outspoken advocate for changing Minnesota's laws on policing to bolster accountability. He and other DFL lawmakers supported several proposals, including one that took aim at "pretextual stops" by curtailing traffic stops for certain minor equipment violations like expired registration or missing a windshield wiper, though failure to have both license plates displayed was not included in the bill.
That proposal did not make the final cut in a sweeping public safety funding legislation that includes some criminal justice and police reform measures.
Thompson denied WCCO's request for interview Friday. He told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, though, that he did not know his license was suspended. He also told the newspaper he kept his Wisconsin driver's license and had not switched it over to a Minnesota one.
DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin released a statement Sunday evening regarding the incident.
"Nobody is above the law, including our elected officials. We expect all of our elected officials, regardless of party, to not only follow the law, but to hold themselves to the highest standards. Whether they like it or not, their words, actions, and behavior are going to be scrutinized by the public. As such it is important for people in positions of power and influence to model the type of behavior we expect from everyone," said Martin. "Representative John Thompson fell short of that standard, and I am disappointed by his recent actions."
The state can still take action on a person's driving record despite not having a valid state license, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety explained.
Public data tracked by the city show that 43% of traffic stops in St. Paul last year were Black drivers. The Black population in the city overall is 16%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
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