A new law would limit what offenses police officers could pull people over for. Law enforcement agencies and race and inequality experts have mixed reactions.
The bill passed by the Virginia General Assembly stops law enforcement officers from stopping or searching anyone solely based upon the odor of marijuana. It also prevents officers from pulling people over for driving without their headlights on, driving without working brake lights or tail lights, driving with expired registration or inspection stickers past four months, driving with defective or unsafe equipment, not wearing seatbelts, and more.
“This has to be one of the dumbest pieces of legislation I have ever seen,” said Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall.
Hall said those laws are on the books for a reason and if legislators make exceptions they may as well get rid of those laws altogether.
“All of these things contribute to safety on our roadways,” said Hall. "If people are getting taken to jail, it’s because they have committed other crimes. So if we stop a car and find an illegal drug, an illegal weapon, somebody’s who’s wanted, or some other evidence of crime, certainly we are going to take action.”
Christiansburg Assistant Police Chief Chris Ramsey said police could still pull over drivers on suspicion of impaired driving or reckless driving. However, that means a $250 fine for a minor offense becomes $2,500 and up to a year in prison.
“That doesn’t make sense. I mean, we don’t want to do that. Law enforcement has no interest in doing something like that," said Ramsey.
Criminal justice expert Dr. Tod Burke hopes lawmakers understand the potential consequences.
“This could be a way to minimize racial profiling," said Burke. “But again, I think we have to look at a bigger picture and find out is the bill going to do what it’s intended to do.”
Dr. Ellington Graves, an associate vice provost for inclusion and diversity at Virginia Tech, said studies have shown that police pull over minority populations two to four times as often. He said police can still find reasons to pull someone over, but this law could reduce the over-policing of minorities.
“We’ve been talking about it and people haven’t been paying attention. The country’s paying attention now and I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction," said Graves.
The governor has to sign the bill by Wednesday night or he can recommend changes and send it back to the General Assembly.