By Josephine Walker
The General Assembly in 2020 passed a law along party lines to end pretextual policing, or the practice of stopping someone for a minor traffic violation. Such traffic stops are made for broken tail lights, tinted windows, or objects hanging from the rearview mirror. The law also bans police from searching a vehicle based on the smell of marijuana.
These stops often lead to officers conducting investigations unrelated to the reason for the stop, according to the criminal justice reform group Justice Forward Virginia.
Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Rockbridge, introduced House Bill 79. He said in a House committee meeting that the bill would make Virginians safer. For example, the bill would prevent people from driving with broken tail lights, which can cause accidents. He also said the legislation could lead police to catch fugitives, including serial killers. He listed a few high-profile killers who were apprehended over the years — outside of Virginia — during stops for minor traffic offenses.
“You never really know who you’re stopping or what you’re gonna get,” Campbell said.
Breanne Armbrust is the executive director of the Neighborhood Resource Center of Greater Fulton, a nonprofit that seeks to provide educational, cultural and nutrition benefits in Richmond’s East End.
Armbrust said data doesn’t show serial killers are pulled over. However, pretextual policing has disproportionately impacted Richmond’s Fulton neighborhood residents, she said.
“These types of stops lead to more engagement with law enforcement, which makes it challenging for everybody that’s involved,” Armbrust said.
Black people accounted for 31% of the drivers pulled over for minor traffic offenses from July 2020 to December 2021, according to data collected through the Community Policing Act. Black people over the age of 18 account for 18% of Virginia’s population over the age of 18, based on census data, though not all of the population drive.
Brad Haywood, executive director of criminal justice reform group Justice Forward, questioned how the assumption is that Black people are worse drivers than white people.
“Like is that really the argument? It’s just absurd,” Haywood said.
Sipiwe West, a North Carolina resident, was pulled over in the late ’90s. She was driving with family through Virginia on Interstate 85 to attend a funeral.
The reason for the traffic stop was an air freshener hanging in her rearview mirror, she said. The family was asked to exit the vehicle and was questioned about their intention and destination, according to West.
“If you ride more than one Black person in a car, you’re probably going to get pulled over, especially if you are young,” West said, who was in her early 20s at the time. She said it was terrible to be profiled for being Black.
“It’s not like everyone else you know … you get pulled over and it’s like ‘OK, I was freaking speeding, let me get a ticket or something like that,’” West said. “This is: ‘Oh, my God. I’m gonna get pulled over. What the hell is possibly going to jump off from this situation?’”
West said the interstate she was traveling on was frequently used to transfer drugs. She was alarmed but not surprised that officers made her family go through that situation — and on top of an already tough period of their lives.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director for the social equity group Marijuana Justice, said pretextual policing around the presumed presence of drugs is racist.
“The police are legally allowed to target us based on the color of our skin,” Higgs Wise said. “We have to continue to circle back to the data and to what we know about history, and why these laws were set in the first place.”
Farnad Darnell is a technician at an HIV clinic who used to work in Northern Virginia and live in Maryland. Darnell said he’s been pulled over multiple times for traffic offenses.
“Since then, I don’t go into Virginia, except to see my sister who’s down in the Newport News area,” Darnell said. “I’d maybe go down there a couple of times a year at most, for those very reasons now, because I didn’t want to get pulled over.”
Darnell said he doesn’t feel less safe on the road due to his past experiences with the police but rather more aware of his driving. He goes out of his way to plan trips that allow him to avoid areas with excessive policing.
Minor traffic stops should be brought back as primary offenses because law enforcement have said their “hands are tied,” Campbell said.
The bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, president pro tempore of the Senate, stated on Twitter that “we will be taking a close look at what came from the House and making sure it doesn’t roll back our recent progress.”
Lucas, along with Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, sponsored identical bills in 2020 which ended minor traffic offenses. Democratic lawmakers were met with Republican opposition at the time but had the majority votes to get the bills through each chamber.
The bills passed as part of a legislative agenda focused on criminal justice and police reform after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Republicans campaigned heavily last year on the message that they would support law enforcement and that Democrats had been soft on crime.
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