Last month, citing strong racial disparities in traffic stops and arrests, Philadelphia’s city council voted to bar police officers from conducting pretextual stops and searches for low-level motor vehicle infractions. It is the first city in the nation to do so, but Philadelphia is hardly alone. Measures to decriminalize driving-while-Black are spreading, slowly but surely, and have major implications not only for racial disparities in traffic stops, but also for disparities in police use of force. To better understand this complex issue and its rich history, we spoke with Sarah Seo, Professor of Law at Columbia University, author of Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom.

[POLICY UPDATE: On January 11, 2022 a new report was released by ProPublica putting into question the use of automated traffic enforcement as a means to reducing racial disparities: Chicago’s “Race-Neutral” Traffic Cameras Ticket Black and Latino Drivers the Most. The report reminds us that there can be unintended consequences to new laws and policies, even those intended to reduce racial disparities, and policymakers and government officials must collect and analyze data to explicitly look for racial disparities.]


Sarah SeoSarah A. Seo is a legal historian of criminal law and procedure in the 20th-century United States. Her recent book, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom, examines the history of the automobile to explain the evolution of the Fourth Amendment and to explore the problem of police discretion in a society committed to the rule of law. The book was named one of 2019’s ten best history books by Smithsonian Magazine and received several prizes, including the Order of the Coif Book Award, the Littleton-Griswold Prize from the American Historical Association, and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award from Phi Beta Kappa Society. In addition to publishing in academic journals, Seo has written for The Atlantic, Boston Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, Le Monde Diplomatique, The New York Review of Books, and The Washington Post.
Since the publication of Policing the Open Road, she has been advocating for the removal of civil traffic law enforcement from police duties. She is also working on a new book project on the history of conspiracy laws.
After earning a J.D. at Columbia Law School in 2007, Seo clerked for Judge Denny Chin, then of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and Judge Reena Raggi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. Seo taught at Iowa Law School before joining the Columbia Law School faculty in 2020.