Traffic Stops Will Change Once Gov. Northam Signs This Bill

Council members pass an ordinance to allow data sharing despite public outcry

By Brian Carlton

November 10, 2020

Having rejected the first version, Northam sent the bill back for changes.

RICHMOND-The way Virginia police officers handle traffic stops is about to change. The Virginia General Assembly guaranteed that, first by passing a bill in their special session and then adopting requested changes on Monday. 

The bill, SB 5029, slipped under the radar during the special session. It didn’t have the name recognition of qualified immunity or no-knock warrants. But in many ways, it impacts law enforcement on a closer, day-to-day level than either of the other two.

Under the bill, no officer can stop or search a vehicle based on the smell of marijuana. Also, they can’t pull over a driver if one headlight or brake light is out. Got a loud exhaust system? Nope, you can’t be pulled for that. What about tinted windows, someone smoking in a car with a minor or a state inspection less than four months past expiration? The answer is no to all of those.

“The essence of this bill, which is to reorient policing throughout the Commonwealth to not have a detrimental effect on communities of color, is absolutely necessary,” said Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News). “It is time we make a real change to the way we treat communities of color and I think this bill, especially with these amendments, will go a long way to effectuate that.” 

The General Assembly’s goal was to cut down on what the Democratic majority saw as a racial problem. According to Pew Research, white drivers are 20% less likely to get stopped for a traffic violation than Black drivers. 

A team from Stanford and New York University took a deeper dive into that. They analyzed 100 million (yes, you read that number right) traffic stops over nearly a decade. They found police searched white drivers 1.5 to 2 times less than Black drivers. 

Back for a Second Time

The bill passed in October, but there were a few glitches that nobody caught until after approval. As it was written, the original version would have prevented officers from stopping someone driving with no headlights or brakelights. Gov. Northam sent the bill back, refusing to sign it until that part was changed.

Some lawmakers used that Monday to make a point. 

“This is the second time we’ve had this bill and we’ve talked about vague and general terms now repeatedly,” said Del. Robert Bell III (R-Albemarle). “And it literally passed the House and Senate with language that said police can’t stop someone that doesn’t have brakelights. For us to let that go out, I think [it] underlines how uncarefully the language was considered.” 

Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) echoed Bell’s comments, urging his fellow House members not to shut down criticism next time, just because it comes from the opposing party.

“We don’t just pass ideas,” Gilbert said. “When Republicans stand up to offer criticism of a bill, the knee jerk reaction of the majority is to dismiss. Our concerns are not always partisan in nature. There is substance to them. Sometimes we’re just trying to get it right.” 

The bill now returns to Gov. Northam for his signature. 

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

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