At the beginning of the month, the new bill went into effect; and it's still the cause of some debate.
March 1 brought the implementation of bill HB 5058, legislation that decriminalized a number of infractions—keeping police from using those violations as a primary reason to pull someone over.
It's a wide variety of offenses that are now decriminalized—from the odor of marijuana, lights for license plates, brake lights, exhaust systems, shaded windows, to jaywalking, and things hanging from the rear-view mirror. All of which are still illegal; but a person cannot be stopped by an officer solely because of that infraction.
It also covers "evidence discovered or obtained" due to a stop that is now considered "unlawful." That is, a person cannot be charged with an offense that is found during a stop that's primary focus was one of the above violations.
The bill has been in the works for quite some time. It was introduced by Delegate Patrick Hope (Democrat, Arlington), amended by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (to maintain stops for driving without headlights), and officially passed last November. The most vocal advocate for this legislation has been Justice Forward Virginia. Executive Director and founder Brad Haywood has weighed in on every aspect of this bill with various news outlets—and has stated that using minor violations as an excuse to investigate a person "is probably the primary source of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.”
But Justice Forward Virginia has had a lot to celebrate recently. Along with this particular bill, legislation has been passed to reform jury sentencing (giving defendants the choice between a judge or jury trial) and the release of prisoners (allowing inmates to accrue more time off of their sentence for good behavior). As for this "pretext searches" bill, even car enthusiasts have gotten on board, having a penchant for tinted windows and "an objective measure of a vehicle’s muffler sound."
There are, of course, those who are against HB 5058. Many argue that it encourages a disregard for public safety. Speaking with WTOP News, Mike Doyle, founder of Alexandria Families for Safer Streets, stated that racial profiling is "appalling" but he worries that this bill will allow people to engage in risky behavior. He asks: “By decriminalizing it are we inferring that it’s OK?”
Perhaps not surprisingly, some law enforcement isn't thrilled with the idea either. In an interview with WSLS 10 News out of Roanoke, Virginia, Police Chief Howard Hall said “this has got to be one of the dumbest pieces of legislation I’ve ever read.”
The argument, of course, is that many more serious crimes have been discovered because of these traffic stops. Hall explained that "if someone’s getting arrested off one of these traffic stops, it’s because they’re wanted, they’ve committed some other crime, perhaps we found drugs or an illegal weapon. Those are people that we want to arrest because they’re criminals.”
In the meantime, Haywood has described the legislation as "a huge first step" for social justice, adding “we ought to expect better of our police than to just shake people down because they feel like it,” Haywood said. Along with the decriminalization and soon legalization of marijuana, Virginia's criminal justice system is facing quite the shakeup and many advocates couldn't be happier.
What are your thoughts on the new bill? Have you had an experience that puts you on a particular side? Please share in the comments!