A bill that aims to reduce unnecessary and targeted traffic stops by limiting what police officers are lawfully allowed to pull drivers over for recently passed the General Assembly and is now awaiting a decision from the governor.
Nevertheless, law enforcement opposes the legislation on the grounds that it would hurt public safety and lead to more dangers while driving.
House Bill 5058, sponsored by Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington County), bars police from stopping drivers for a number of traffic offenses, many being equipment infractions, such as broken brake lights, tinted windows, noisy mufflers, suspending certain objects from the rear-view window and others.
“This [legislation] bubbled up to a high level of concern because of the disproportionate number of black and brown communities that tend to be targeted for these pretextual [traffic] stops,” Hope said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “We wanted to create a bill that would eliminate or at least significantly curve those number of interactions that frequently escalate. So that is what you have before you, a bill to try to eliminate those unnecessary interactions.”
Hope added: “We’re simply changing what are primary offenses to secondary offenses.”
The measure would also prohibit cops from pulling over vehicles for not having an illuminated license plate, expired safety inspection stickers – unless three or more months past due – and would turn a violation for smoking in a car with a minor present into a $100 citation.
Most notably, the legislation would stop law enforcement from searching vehicles based on the smell of marijuana, and no evidence discovered or obtained from a violation can be admissible in court.
Some law enforcement officers and groups strongly oppose Hope’s bill because they argue it creates a public safety problem.
“This bill just has so many issues,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, in an interview with The Star. “I think it will decrease public safety and it will make Virginia less safe.”
Jones said that the sheriffs’ association has asked Governor Ralph Northam to amend the bill with a re-enactment clause, meaning the legislation would not go into effect until the General Assembly enacts it again during the regular session.
Additionally, Jones thought the bill was overreaching and combining too many issues that should be separate.
Loudoun County Sheriff, Mike Chapman, also spoke against the measure.
“I think the bill in itself, from everything that I’ve read about it, is just an affront to common sense and public safety,” Chapman told The Star. “And to have a bill like that pass through both the House and the Senate and go to the Governor for signage is really ill conceived and just a true detriment to the safety of our public.”
Chapman also said the provision on the odor of marijuana is a mistake because, although decriminalized, it is still an illegal drug and can cause users to drive under the influence.
Whether or not Governor Northam will sign the bill into law, veto it completely or offer amendments for the House to consider is unknown at this time.
Hope said he is hopeful Northam will sign it, but he is certainly open to any suggestions, while Chapman said it would be extremely foolish of the governor to sign the bill.
When The Star asked if Northam intended to sign the legislation into law, Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s press secretary said: “Governor Northam is committed to criminal justice reform. He looks forward to carefully reviewing this bill.”
The decision from the governor should happen in the next couple of days because when legislation is sent to his desk while the Assembly is still in session, as it is right now, there is only a seven-day window to executive action, according to Hope.
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