The evolution of traffic law in Virginia: An update

When can police pull you over? This is a question that can lead to some confusion. In some cases, it may seem obvious that police should stop a dangerous driver but in others, the reason police choose to conduct a traffic stop is not as clear. Virginia lawmakers recently passed a number of new laws that attempt to help better ensure that the police are initiating traffic stops only when needed to protect public safety and not for the purposes of revenue generation or “fishing expeditions”.

Why the need for a new law?

In the past, police could pull drivers over for a myriad of different reasons including (i) window tint violations, (ii) having a single brake light or taillight out, (iii) having an object dangling from the rearview mirror, (iv) having a dead inspection sticker or (v) having a dead vehicle registration. Most of these violations are simple “equipment violations” that by themselves pose no immediate threat to the public at large. However, once the officer pulled the vehicle over, the officer was free to “fish” around for other indications of criminal activity, specifically, evidence of possession of narcotics.  Often, the “nervous behavior” of the driver or the smell of marijuana would cause the situation to escalate to a full-blown search of the vehicle or arrest of the driver.

The new laws which took effect in 2021 have effectively removed the ability of officers to pull drivers over for many minor equipment infractions, thereby decreasing the total number of citizen-officer interactions.  Some of these changes are discussed in more detail below.

So, what has changed?

In addition to no longer being able to conduct a traffic stop because something his hanging from the rearview mirror, officers are now prohibited from stopping a car SOLELY for the following:

·        Windows. Officers can no longer pull drivers over solely because of having illegally tinted windows, or having stickers, signs, or decals in the windows.

·        Lights. Police cannot stop a car solely for having a single headlight or brake light out.  If both are out, the police may still stop the vehicle.  Further police cannot stop a car for having a license plate light that is burned out.

·        Muffler. A loud or faulty muffler no longer meets the criteria for a stop.

·        Cigarette or marijuana smoke. Officers also cannot conduct a stop because the driver is smoking while a minor is in the vehicle or because they smell marijuana emanating from the vehicle.

·        Seat belts. Not wearing a seat belt? Although still a violation, it is not enough by itself to justify getting stopped.   

·        Registration. Officers are no longer able to stop a vehicle based solely on the vehicle’s ownership status or to conduct a stop based on an expired license registration unless the registration is more than three months past its expiration date.

It is important to note that the law did not make these activities legal, it just removed the ability of officers to use these violations as the sole basis for stopping the vehicle. Instead, an officer must have a more serious reason for a stop — such as speeding or reckless driving. Therefore, if the officer has a “legal” or “legitimate reason to stop the vehicle, the officer is free to issue citations for any and/or all of the other violations that exist at the time of the stop.

What does this mean for drivers who face criminal charges after a traffic stop?

As a deterrent to the police ignoring these new laws, any evidence that is collected as a result of a stop that is deemed “illegal” is not admissible at trial. Therefore, a driver who has an expired license would potentially be able to effectively challenge the case against him/her if it can be established that the officer pulled him/her over for an inappropriate reason. While these changes to the law will not apply to ever person, it will increase the number of citizens who may need the help of a lawyer to determine if they can achieve a better result in court.

It is important to remember that the vast majority of officers are working extremely hard to serve our communities and help make them a better place, but the pressures that are often put on officers to write tickets, make arrests and generate revenue for the localities is extremely high. Officers are human and make mistakes and it is important for those who face allegations of criminal activity to consult with counsel, review the reason for the stop and determine whether or not they might be able to get the charges reduced or dismissed.