Opinion: ‘Know why I pulled you over?’ Fortunately, California police can’t ask you that anymore

An officer handing a motorist a document.
A California Highway Patrol officer conducting a traffic stop.
(Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

As of January, California police officers are required to provide motorists and pedestrians with the reason for stopping them before asking any questions. Under Assembly Bill 2773, which was enacted in 2022 and took effect with the new year, officers are no longer allowed to begin such encounters by asking drivers the infamous question, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

The first state-level reform of its kind, this law could represent an important improvement in relations between police and the public — just not exactly for the reasons advanced by its supporters.

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The suggested impetus for the bill was to discourage so-called pretextual stops and consequently reduce a range of racial disparities in traffic and pedestrian policing. Pretextual stops are those in which officers stop a motorist or pedestrian for a minor infraction — say, a broken taillight or jaywalking — with the actual goal of questioning or searching the person to uncover evidence of a more significant violation or crime. While these types of stops have been deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, they have a history of being used to target people based on racial bias.


Although Los Angeles and other jurisdictions have successfully discouraged the tactic by directly limiting pretextual stops, California’s new law is not likely to contribute significantly to that effort. While it does prohibit California police officers from beginning a pretextual stop by asking a potentially incriminating question, it does nothing to undo their legal right to conduct such stops.

Even if the legislation falls short of the ambitions of its supporters, however, it does hold promise for furthering community trust in police by promoting what’s known as procedural justice. In simple terms, procedural justice is the perception of fairness in interactions with authority such as traffic stops.

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According to well-supported research, procedural justice matters because people who are treated more fairly by an authority perceive it as more legitimate. In fact, the perception of fairness in an interaction with an authority sometimes matters even more than the actual outcome. And the more people perceive an authority as legitimate, the more likely they are to follow its rules and laws.

People judge procedural justice primarily according to four aspects of any interaction with an authority: whether the authority shows transparency and neutrality, whether one has a meaningful voice in the encounter, whether one is treated with respect, and whether the authority appears to have trustworthy motives.

California’s new law promotes these elements of procedural justice. During a traffic stop, for example, an officer who immediately shares the reason for the stop is being transparent. This allows the motorist to directly engage with the legitimate, legal reason for the stop rather than feel as if they are being interrogated for no reason or an ulterior motive. This more respectful form of communication makes police officers more accountable to those they wield power over.

As one recent study of procedural justice found, “people are more accepting of and cooperative with authorities when they are treated with fairness and respect.” We can therefore expect California’s law to bolster trust in officers and elevate the legitimacy of policing.


By codifying a simple yet influential change in the way officers interact with community members, California lawmakers are advancing reform-minded, research-backed police practices. This should lead other states to follow suit; Connecticut lawmakers recently passed a similar bill.

Transparency and accountability are essential principles for better policing, and reforms like California’s will help make them a reality.

Michael Bochkur Dratver is a postbaccalaureate fellow at Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory.