RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- A newly passed bill could make it harder for Virginians to get pulled over but Gov. Ralph Northam said he won’t sign it without some changes.
Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), who introduced the bill, said in a phone interview on Thursday that the legislation prevents police from stopping people for more than a dozen minor infractions.
Supporters contend these traffic offenses have been used as a proxy to enforce harsh drug laws that disproportionately target people of color. Opponents of the bill are largely concerned about the unintended consequences of weakening statutes designed to keep the roads safe.
Sen. Lucas said the parts Gov. Northam disagrees with were included by accident as lawmakers negotiated various versions of the sweeping package. She expects the Democrat-led House and Senate to approve it with his changes.
As amended, people driving at night with both headlights or both brake lights out could still be pulled over. Previously, the bill prohibited that.
“The patrons agree with it. I think law enforcement agrees with it. We all want to maintain safety on our highways,” Northam said after suggesting the changes on Wednesday.
If the bill becomes law, the infractions included would still be illegal in Virginia but police wouldn’t be able to use them as the sole reason to justify a stop. Officers would still be able to tack them on following a more serious violation like speeding.
The legislation names the following as “secondary offenses.”
- Tinted windows
- Signs, decals & stickers on windshield
- Hanging objects on rearview mirror
- Having just one headlight or brake light out
- Broken license plate light
- Loud or non-working muffler system
- Smoking in a vehicle with a minor
- Failure to wear a seat belt
- Expired vehicle registration
- Expired state inspection by more than four months
- Various learners permit violations, including driving after curfew, having too many passengers in the car and using a cell phone while operating a vehicle
Justice Forward Virginia Founder and Executive Director Brad Haywood said preventing stops for these reasons will help address racial disparities in policing.
“Unfortunately, because we’ve allowed police to act on hunches, those hunches typically tend to be driven by implicit if not explicit bias, which means people who are stopped for traffic offenses are disproportionately Black and Latinx,” Haywood said.
Next year, Haywood is hoping to see lawmakers take further steps to limit police searches in certain circumstances. Another controversial section of this bill prohibits officers from initiating a search based on the smell of marijuana alone.
Chesterfield Police Chief Jeff Katz called the ban on scent-based searches “an absolute disaster” but he said the bill as amended is better than it started. Katz referred to Gov. Northam’s headlight and brake light changes as “life-saving.”
As for other sections of the bill, Katz said he appreciates the intent but he fears lawmakers are rushing changes without data to support them. He said local police departments just started keeping racial data on traffic stops under the direction of the General Assembly earlier this summer.
“To make emotional decisions based on conventional wisdom and ignoring the data is probably not in anyone’s best interest,” Katz said.
Haywood said national studies have demonstrated problems with pretextual stops. He said this data does not meaningfully exist at the state level yet.
Katz also raised concerns that limiting stops for minor issues could tie the hands of officers.
“Sometimes people who commit major crimes also happen to not pay attention to the little things and if those little things are still illegal then law enforcement has an opportunity and I would argue a duty to intervene,” Katz said.
Bills that pass during special sessions generally take effect on the first day of the fourth month after adjournment. Lawmakers have yet to adjourn but the legislation is likely to take effect in the spring of 2021 if it clears its final hurdle.