RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation in late 2020 that barred police from pulling drivers over on a host of vehicle equipment violations — and also blocked officers from searching vehicles based on an “odor of marijuana.”
Reformers say the changes were a crucial step toward reducing “pretextual” policing, or stopping cars for minor reasons to search them or conduct unrelated investigations.
Black motorists are more likely to be pulled over on traffic stops than other drivers, statistics show, leading to more encounters with police.
But since the new rules took effect, there’s been widespread pushback from law enforcement. A bill now being considered by state lawmakers would scrap some of the 2020 changes and bring back police authority to make defective equipment stops.
The state’s police and sheriffs associations contend the law has made Virginia’s roadways more dangerous. The rules, for example, block police from stopping cars with only one working headlight or brake light, despite the safety hazards.
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Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright said the rules have likely led to increased crime because they limit police interactions — translating into fewer cars stopped, fewer illegal guns found, and fewer occasions to run people’s names through databases to see if there’s a warrant for their arrest.
“There’s people who are involved in criminal activity who know that we no longer possess some of the tools that we used to have in order to help prevent crime,” Wright said last month of his city’s 2021 spike in homicides.
The Republican-led House of Delegates approved the recent legislation on a 52-45 party line vote on Feb. 11. The bill now heads to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where it faces a steeper climb. The 15-member Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the bill Monday.
Backers of the bill include the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, the Virginia State Police Association, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys.
Opponents include the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a wide array of criminal justice reformers.
The legislation would reinstate police authority to stop motorists for the following infractions, among several others:
- Driving with only one working headlight or brake light.
- A non-operating third brake light — a higher-mounted center light required on all new cars since 1986 under federal law.
- Loud or non-working muffler systems.
- Tinted windows; dangling objects from rear view mirrors that obstruct a driver’s view; and non-illuminated license plates.
- Expired vehicle registration and safety inspection stickers unless they are at least three months past due.
- Any “defective and unsafe equipment” on a moving vehicle.
Though these are still infractions under existing state law, police must have first pulled drivers over for a primary offense, such as speeding or blowing through a traffic signal, to conduct enforcement.
Given that all such police stops would be allowed under the legislation, the bill also scraps the provision that anything officers find in a prohibited stop — from guns to drugs to a dead body in the back seat — can’t be used in any future prosecution.
The sponsor of this year’s bill, Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge County, backed off an earlier version that would also have brought back officers’ authority to search cars if they smelled marijuana coming from them.
Reformers have long contended that such searches have been rife with police abuse, and Campbell’s original proposal to bring them back was seen as a long shot given the state’s recent move to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
But at a House courts subcommittee meeting in early February, Campbell asserted that basic public safety on Virginia roadways calls for bringing back the old law allowing vehicle equipment stops.
“I think it’s very important that we bring these back as primary offenses for law enforcement,” said Campbell, a former Virginia state trooper. “They tell me for the last year and a half that their hands have been pretty much tied.”
Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, agreed, saying police don’t “enjoy people pulling people over,” but that “our job is to protect the public” by enforcing safety rules.
“While on first glance equipment violations might seem minor, anybody who has served in the capacities we have served in have seen the horrors that defective equipment on motor vehicles can cause,” he said.
Some see the issue very differently.
Brad Haywood is the chief public defender for Arlington and Falls Church and the founder of Justice Forward Virginia — a group of reformers, public defenders and defense lawyers that spearheaded the 2020 change.
He called the existing law “landmark racial justice legislation” that should remain in place. “This was specifically intended to narrow racial disparities in traffic stops and to save the lives of Black and brown Virginians,” Haywood said. “It’s already working in that regard.”
Over the years, he said, Black motorists have been almost twice as likely to be pulled over as white motorists.
“To believe that that’s anything other than racism at work would be to believe that Black people are simply worse drivers than white people — which is absolutely outrageous,” Haywood said.
Breanne Armbrust, the executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton, a nonprofit in the Richmond area, said many people stopped by police are “people attempting to get to and from work or running simple errands for their household.”
Sometimes, she said, they don’t have computer access and can’t get to the DMV to update their registration, and “might not be able to afford” making the fix to their car.
While it’s unclear whether the change in law can be tied to a change in local crime rates, one Fairfax County man said it has led to a decline in public safety and the quality of life in his community.
Robert Mercincavage, a 69-year-old “moderate Democrat” in Great Falls, said he and his wife are often woken up at night because of loud cars on Georgetown Pike — about 100 yards from his home — in the early morning hours.
“I’m like ‘What the heck,’” he said. “It’s ludicrous that at 2 o’clock in the morning, these people are running around in these cars, like Honda Civics and stuff, that are customized to make excessively loud noise.”
Mercincavage, a retiree from the IT and communications industries, said he recorded the road sound at over 130 decibels in his kitchen. But he said when he asked local police to help, a high-ranking officer said “unfortunately our hands are tied” because of the 2020 law.
Mercincavage said most citizens expect that basic safety rules — such as “a car needs to have two headlights” — are being enforced. A missing headlight, he said, makes it much harder to judge a car coming the other way.
He’s been telling everyone he can — including federal highway safety agencies — about the dangers of not enforcing such rules. “So many people are being harmed by this,” he said. “This is basic health and safety.”
The legislation is one of 26 bills to be considered Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That committee is composed of nine Democrats and six Republicans, meaning two Democrats would have to cross party lines for the bill to advance.
At the House subcommittee hearing in early February, Campbell read a list of notorious killers — including Ted Bundy and Timothy McVeigh — who were caught when police pulled over their cars on traffic or vehicle equipment violations.
“Ted Bundy he was a slippery little fella who escaped twice,” Campbell said. “And all three times he was arrested, it was for things like driving without brake lights.”
“When you stop the car for a tag-light or a tail-light, you never really know who you’re stopping or what you’re going to get.”
But Haywood said that he, too, has a list — of people who died in police custody after first being pulled over on traffic stops. He mentioned Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and others.
“These are all people who — if Virginia’s historic laws limiting pretextual policing were in effect nationwide — would be alive today,” he said.