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New law prevents police stops for some traffic violations

Virginia drivers may have fewer reasons to feel nervous when they encounter a police car. Many fear that when police pull them over for minor traffic violations, the incident will escalate to a search of their vehicles, an arrest and more serious charges. However, lawmakers recently passed a bill that would limit the reasons why police may pull drivers over and search their vehicles.

Still waiting for the governor’s signature, the bill is part of police reforms that many believe are long overdue. Proponents of the bill believe police often use traffic stops for minor violations as an excuse to search vehicles for drugs, which can lead to criminal charges. These traffic violations and pretexts for vehicle searches routinely target young people and people of color, according to civil rights advocates. The bill would restrict police from pulling over vehicles for any of the following:

  • Having a broken taillights
  • Driving with a headlight out
  • Having windows tinted too dark
  • Smoking in a vehicle with minor passengers
  • Not having license plates illuminated
  • Having excessively loud vehicle exhausts
  • Having expired registration within the grace period

Additionally, police can no longer claim they smell marijuana as an excuse for searching vehicles without additional probable cause. Of course, law enforcement agencies generally disapprove of the measures, citing that, for example, allowing drivers to operate vehicles without headlights or taillights makes the roads dangerous for others. However, Virginia lawmakers do not believe the language of the bill will prevent police from stopping drivers for legitimate traffic violations.