VML calls for a review of law that limits police traffic stops for minor offenses

October 19, 2023
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Local government representatives who make up the Virginia Municipal League voted this week in support of a statement calling for a review of a 2020 criminal justice reform law signed by then Governor Ralph Northam that limited law enforcement’s ability to make traffic stops for minor vehicle equipment issues.

At its annual meeting in Norfolk, VML’s membership voted 47-17 to retain language calling for a review of the policy in a document laying its priorities, according to Roanoke City Councilman Luke Priddy, who opposed the group taking a skeptical stance on a law which was claimed would minimize racial profiling in traffic enforcement. The bill took aim at the idea of “pretextual” traffic stops, or the practice of using small issues like broken brake lights as a reason to stop, question and potentially search drivers officers deem suspicious.

When the legislation passed three years ago, opponents of the law argued it could make roads less safe and hamstring law enforcement’s ability to fight more serious crime.

VML, which represents the interests of mostly city and town governments as well as a few counties, declined to comment on the decision and said the vote was not recorded. The organization previously said the language merely asks for a review of the legislation and doesn’t endorse any particular policy action.

Prior to the vote, progressive criminal justice reform groups had pressed VML to avoid taking a stance that could give fuel to efforts in the General Assembly to revisit or repeal the law.

“Absent VML taking some kind of vote to do something different in the future, individuals will be able to stand up in the next session and say the Virginia Municipal League has endorsed a policy seeking for the General Assembly to review these items,” Priddy said in an interview. “I’m just surprised to have VML take a stance that so many organizations have opposed.”

Priddy said he felt VML members, who work with local police chiefs, weren’t given an opportunity to hear a “balanced presentation” on the issue.

The Roanoke City Council, the governing body on which Priddy serves, voted last year to formally call on the General Assembly to restore local police departments’ power to pull drivers over for problems like defective equipment, broken tail lights, expired registrations and overly dark window tint. Priddy, who has worked as a legislative aide to Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, was not on the council at the time.

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In an interview with the Roanoke Rambler last year, Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea said he felt the city had to “take a look at everything on the table” to try to address its gun violence problem.

Republican legislators have introduced bills to repeal the 2020 law, but those efforts have been blocked in the Democratic-controlled state Senate. That means the state’s direction on the traffic stop issue could be decided by who wins the high-stakes General Assembly elections on Nov. 7, when all 140 seats in the legislature’s two chambers are on the ballot.

Republicans who control the House of Delegates have signaled they see VML’s stance as confirmation their concerns about the bill have been borne out.

“When Democrats voted to drastically curtail the authority of Virginia law enforcement to pull over drivers for things like missing wheels, student drivers texting behind the wheel, or other such violations of law, Republicans sounded the alarm,” the office of House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a news release last week calling attention to the issue.

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In a post on X, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said the bill she helped write is now a “national model in how to reduce racial profiling.”

“Any attempts to repeal this landmark legislation are dead on arrival in the Senate,” Lucas said. “We will NOT go back.”

Source:  Virginia Mercury Graham Moomaw

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