Chesterfield, VA – Virginia is poised to drastically reduce the circumstances in which law enforcement officers will be permitted to conduct traffic stops and enforce traffic laws.
Proponents of Senate Bill 5029 and House Bill 5058 argue that police have been targeting black people and pulling them over for unwarranted stops and searches, the Daily Press reported.
The legislation, which passed the General Assembly and has been sent to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam to be signed into law, bans law enforcement officer from stopping vehicles for driving without headlights, driving without working tail lights or brake lights, or driving with expired registration unless it has been expired for at least three months, WSLS reported.
Police would also not be allowed to pull vehicles over for obstructed windshields, seatbelt violations, illegal tint, driving with defective or unsafe equipment, or smoking with minors inside the vehicle, according to the bill.
Officers would be banned from stopping or searching anyone based upon the odor of marijuana, and would no longer be able to stop jaywalkers or pedestrians who are “carelessly or maliciously interfering with the orderly passage of vehicles,” the Daily Press reported.
“This might be the most significant reform of the state’s criminal justice system in decades,” Justice Forward Virginia Executive Director Brad Haywood, an Arlington-based public defender, told the Daily Press. “This is a big step forward for racial justice in Virginia.”
Haywood alleged that using so-called minor infractions to stop citizens in order to investigate them further “is probably the primary source of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
“If you’re black, you’re much more likely to be pulled over” in the first place, he added.
York-Poquoson Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs vehemently disputed Haywood’s assertion that police target black people.
“That’s one of the biggest lies out there,” Sheriff Diggs told the Daily Press. “When you ride around at night in your car, see if you can determine the race of the person in front of you.”
Hampton defense attorney Ron Smith told the Daily Press that the law change will result in a “significant” drop in court cases.
“It’s not gonna be very busy in the courtroom, I can tell you that,” Smith said. “The number of cases is going to drop dramatically.”
Law enforcement groups warned that banning officers from being able to do their jobs will only serve to make roadways more deadly for citizens.
“Do they not care about public safety at all?” Sheriff Diggs asked the Daily Press. “It’s gone beyond being anti-police now. Now they’re anti-public safety and the safety of the citizens.”
Sheriff Diggs noted that driving with functioning brake lights is an essential aspect in helping to prevent serious crashes.
“And no headlights?” the sheriff ranted. “No headlights are one of the top indicators of a drunk driver …The smell of marijuana? They don’t care about people driving impaired, maybe getting ready to kill someone? That’s a significant problem in states where marijuana is legal.”
Chesterfield County Police Chief Colonel Jeffrey Katz addressed the “police reform” legislation in a Facebook post on Wednesday in an effort to “communicate clearly with community members as to how legislative changes will impact service delivery outputs.”
“Once [this legislation is] passed into law, police officers will be unable to stop motorists who are driving a car, at night, without their headlights on,” Chief Katz wrote. “Yes, you did read this correctly. If signed, it will be UNLAWFUL for a police officer to stop a motorist driving at night without headlights.”
Chief Katz noted that research indicates between 55 and 65 percent of motorists who drive at night without activating their headlights are “driving while impaired.”
He also touched on the issue of police not being able to “prolong the stop in order to conduct a criminal investigation” in the event they smell marijuana after pulling someone over.
“This is not the case with the smell of alcoholic beverages,” the chief pointed out. “In fact, the expectation of an officer is that she or he would conduct an investigation for impaired driving. Under this proposed law, officers will be prohibited from such investigation based upon the smell of marijuana.”
According to Chief Katz, traffic volume has dropped 17 percent due to COVID-19 restrictions, but traffic fatalities are up a whopping 55 percent in comparison to the same time period last year – even with a 9 percent increase in “DUI enforcement efforts.”
“People are dying, sudden, random, and violent deaths on our roadways,” he wrote. “This law will make it worse and more people will be killed on our roadways if signed.”
Chief Katz urged citizens to contact Northam’s office if they are concerned about the ramifications of the legislation being signed into law.
Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dana Schrand said her group has called on Northam not to sign off on the sweeping reforms, the Daily Press reported.
“If these laws can’t be enforced as primary violations, the General Assembly might as well repeal them,” Schrand said. “And Virginia will end up with more crashes and more fatalities.”
Northam’s deadline to sign off on the legislation is Oct. 21.
“Governor Northam is committed to comprehensive criminal justice reform, and looks forward to reviewing this legislation,” his spokesperson, Alena Yarmosky, told the Daily Press.