Easing new limits on police powers, Virginia is cracking back down on noisy cars

‘It’s gotten ridiculous’

By: - April 1, 2022 12:05 am

A police car in Richmond, Va. Police currently provide the vast majority of transports to psychiatric hospitals across Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As someone who once lived near the Richmond Raceway, Robin Mines says she’s familiar with the sound of loud, fast cars. She didn’t expect to have to endure similar noises miles away in her current South Richmond neighborhood, where she says elderly people, children and veterans with PTSD are being rattled late at night by revved-up engines, intentionally loud exhaust systems and people driving “like they’re on a drag strip.”

“It’s gotten ridiculous, said Mines, a pastor who serves as president of the Swansboro West Civic Association, which represents a neighborhood tucked between two major roads, Hull Street Road and Midlothian Turnpike.

When Mines asked the Richmond Police to do something about the noise, she says they told her their hands were tied due to a new state law that restricted law enforcement’s ability to initiate traffic stops over equipment issues.

Democratic lawmakers approved that change in 2020 as part of the post-George Floyd push for police reform, presenting it as a way to reduce racial disparities in traffic enforcement by preventing police from using minor vehicle defects as a reason to question or search drivers they believe to be suspicious.

When Mines learned police could no longer stop vehicles for noise alone, she and other neighborhood leaders approached Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, about a possible fix. Despite some Democrats’ concerns about re-opening the door to racially biased enforcement, the General Assembly sent legislation to Gov. Glenn Youngkin that would restore police officers’ power to stop vehicles over excessive noise.

Mines said she hopes police won’t use those powers as “a weapon to go after people they don’t like.” But she rejected the notion there was something racially problematic about the bill, noting it wasn’t just White people who pushed for the 1994 federal crime bill now widely criticized as contributing to the overpolicing of minority neighborhoods.

“It was Black people too because our neighborhoods were going to hell,” she said. “We can’t keep bending rules and letting our neighborhoods go down because we’re feeling sorry for somebody who can’t follow the rules like the rest of us.”

The legislation passed the Democratic-led state Senate on a 32-8 vote. It cleared the Republican House of Delegates 79-18.

In an interview, Carr said she felt excessive noise was different from other types of pretextual stops Democrats pushed to get rid of. Unlike the minimal public impact of an expired sticker or busted taillight, she said, loud exhaust can be a nuisance to entire neighborhoods.

“This is the only pretext thing that affects other people,” Carr said.

Some Senate Republicans had raised objections to provisions in the bill that would have allowed police to go after people for loud vehicle noise on private property. That language was ultimately removed and the bill passed with unanimous GOP support.

That suggests it will probably win final approval from Youngkin, who campaigned against many of the criminal justice reform measures Democrats enacted in the last two years. Carr said she had received assurances from Republican colleagues that the governor would not try to broaden the bill to restore more types of pretextual stops.

“I don’t want this to be a slippage thing,” she said.

But slippage was exactly the concern of many members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus who opposed the bill.

If the underlying problem was exhaust systems being intentionally modified to be louder, said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, it can be addressed in other ways like state inspections of vehicles. Giving police officers discretionary power to make snap judgements about whether someone’s vehicle is too loud, he said, is a step backward.

“The data is clear that for these minor traffic infractions they are enforced disproportionately against brown and Black drivers,” Bourne said. “We did a lot of great work eliminating many of those minor traffic infractions. And now we seem to be going the other way and trying to piecemeal them back into the code.”

The issue of minor traffic stops spiraling into more serious confrontations due to aggressive policing was pushed to the forefront last year when police in the small town of Windsor pulled their guns on Black and Latino Army Lt. Caron Nazario due to the mistaken belief his SUV was missing a license plate.

Initial traffic stop data published in 2021 under a new police-accountability law indicated Black drivers in Virginia are nearly twice as likely than White drivers to be pulled over and three times more likely to be subjected to a vehicle search.

Wyatt Rolla, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, cited that data during a Senate committee hearing while urging lawmakers to oppose the bill.

“Please do not expand police interactions with Virginians for minor reasons,” Rolla said. “Especially when data suggests it will disproportionately impact Black and brown Virginians and low-income Virginians who may struggle to afford repairs.”

Several Democrats from Northern Virginia said loud exhaust noise had recently become a more pressing problem in their districts.

“I have a lot of community support for this in my very diverse community too,” Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Loudoun, told Carr.

Some localities, including New York City and Knoxville, Tenn., are using technology to try to crack down on loud, souped-up vehicles. Similar to speed cameras, the noise detection devices are pitched as an automatic, unbiased way to ticket drivers causing a nuisance. At one point, the Virginia bill envisioned providing all state troopers with decibel meters. Carr said the legislation was whittled down for simplicity’s sake and to provide a more immediate fix to the issue, but she’d be open to considering other solutions in the future.

“People in the communities will be able to make noise about it now,” she said. “They’ll be able to talk to the police.”

Representatives of two other Richmond community groups, the Randolph Neighborhood Association and the Historic West Grace Street Association, also testified in favor of the bill as it made its way through the legislature.

Winfield Ryan, representing the West Grace neighborhood, told legislators the loud noise is often accompanied by dangerous driving and cars, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles traveling in “packs.” He pointed to a recent incident on Broad Street in which a Richmond police officer was injured while standing in the road and seemingly trying to stop a fast-moving motorcycle.

“It is not a question of if a tragic accident is going to occur as a result of these activities,” Ryan said. “It’s only a question of when.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.