Current state law on traffic stops protects motorists and police officers, too

October 16, 2023 12:50 am

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Virginia Municipal League members recently voted to revisit a 2020 law that sharply limits the opportunity for police officers to pull over drivers for minor equipment violations, including broken taillights and expired registration stickers. The law had passed in the aftermath of the horrific, videotaped police killing of George Floyd.

VML members vote in favor of reviewing Virginia law limiting minor traffic stops

The league is a nonprofit association of cities, towns and a few counties. VML representatives who supported re-examining the law may not know about the police-involved death of Raymond C. Chandler in Norfolk back in 2000. Here, then, is a painful refresher course – and why so many state legislators want to reduce unnecessary interactions between law-enforcement officers and motorists.

Chandler, who was Black, was driving to work as a security guard late at night when Norfolk police officers pulled him over for an unregistered license plate, according to newspaper archives. Officers asked for his driver’s license and registration, which he didn’t turn over; his license had been suspended.

Police told Chandler they were going to arrest him. A struggle took place. Police pepper-sprayed him and placed him face down on the ground.

Chandler had an enlarged heart, among other health problems. He died shortly afterward. The officers in the Chandler case eventually were cleared.

Chandler shouldn’t have been behind the wheel, of course. He also should’ve listened to police. But losing your life in an incident that began over an unregistered plate is a severe, unfathomable penalty.

Nor do we hear about the many cases where police stop motorists, often fishing for nonexistent felonies, and find zilch.

Such encounters heighten the risks for citizens and police officers alike. They also antagonize drivers who are guilty of, at worst,  low-level traffic violations. They damage the relationship between police and the greater community.

We saw this more recently when Windsor officers drew their guns and pepper-sprayed Army Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, in December 2020. They had stopped him over a “missing” rear license plate.

Except Nazario had a temporary plate in the SUV’s window. Video of the incident went viral.

Black and brown people are disproportionately the recipients of this type of treatment, even with the 2020 law. State data of police stops for July 2022-March 2023, for example, show that 30.4% of Virginia resident drivers stopped were Black, though they comprise only 19.4% of the state’s driving-age population. Black drivers also were searched and arrested at slightly higher rates than white drivers.

As my Virginia Mercury colleague Graham Moomaw reported, the 2020 law doesn’t erase specific equipment violations from the books, but it prevents police from using them as the primary reason to stop motorists. It’s a way to protect motorists of color from biased treatment on state roads.

Republican legislators criticized the bill at the time of its debate and passage. Democrats controlled both chambers and the governor’s seat back then.

Last week, dozens of localities in VML, including Chesapeake, voted for the General Assembly to review the law. Chesapeake Mayor Rick West told me the city’s police chief and other Hampton Roads police departments have found such stops are effective in fighting crime.

“Pulling cars over for small events has led to the confiscation of illegal drugs, the confiscation of illegal guns, finding wanted criminals and preventing crimes,” West said. “My main reason is that the good outweighs the bad.”

Several progressive groups in Virginia, though, castigated the VML’s debate even before members voted – and with good reason. Those groups, including Justice Forward Virginia and the state ACLU, wrote to the VML on Oct. 2, saying such “pretextual policing” – the practice of stopping motorists for minor offenses in hopes of searching for more serious crimes – “has become synonymous with racial profiling.”

The letter continued: “ … Philando Castile, Samuel DuBose, Daunte Wright, and many others all were killed at the hands of police after an encounter that began with a ‘pretextual hunch.’ ” 

Castile’s slaying in 2016 was especially egregious. Castile had told the Minneapolis-area police officer who stopped him that he had a gun, which he had a permit for. His girlfriend, who was in the car, said he was reaching for his driver’s license and registration when the officer fatally shot him.

A horrific slaying, massive protests and depressing déjà vu

A New York Times story noted Castile had been stopped by police a staggering 49 times in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area over a 13-year span, usually for minor infractions. The same article said a Minnesota-commissioned study in 2003 found “minority drivers were more likely than white drivers to be both stopped and searched, even though officers found contraband more often when searching white drivers.”

Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School, studies policing, crime and race. He told me that pretextual stops are legal, but problematic.

“It makes the police workplace a little less safe,” Fagan said during a phone interview. “It aggravates racial disparities. It’s hard to find something good to say about it.”

Later, by email, Fagan continued: “It seems irresponsible (to me) that police would argue for more frequent interactions with civilian drivers, knowing that those interactions have little impact on crime and increase danger for both police and drivers (and some passengers).

It makes the police workplace a little less safe. It aggravates racial disparities. It’s hard to find something good to say about it.

– Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School professor

Such encounters inevitably lead to evidence-based claims of racial bias by police departments. A 2021 study of more than 8 million traffic stops in Washington state, for example, found they might contribute to greater racial profiling.

For all those reasons, the commonwealth shouldn’t go backward. Keep the police stop law as is.

Officers should focus their time on targeting criminals they know about, instead of fishing for suspects along a huge concrete corridor.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]