The Bulletin

Police reforms go into effect in Virginia

By: - March 2, 2021 12:05 am

Police guarded the Rotunda at UVA on Aug. 11, 2018, in Charlottesville, the anniversary weekend of the deadly white supremacist rally that left one dead and dozens injured. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A slew of new laws aimed at reining in police abuses following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis went into effect in Virginia Monday. The legislation — which lawmakers passed during a special legislative session last year following nationwide protests — bar no-knock warrants, limit use of chokeholds and authorize the attorney general to investigate local departments.

From our story about the reforms after they were signed by the governor in November:

Banning police from executing no-knock search warrants

Called Breonna’s Law after Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed during a late-night raid in Louisville, the legislation makes Virginia just the third state in the country to bar police from executing warrants without first knocking and announcing themselves.

Law enforcement agencies were divided on the measure, with some arguing unannounced searches are important in limited circumstances to protect officers and evidence. Others said they didn’t use the tactic and considered it dangerous not to identify themselves as police.

Downgrading a handful of minor traffic violations to secondary offenses

The bill is aimed curbing at what are often called pre-textual traffic stops — interactions motivated less by an officer’s concern about the offense at hand and more by a desire to investigate whether the people in the vehicle are committing other crimes. Supporters say they hope it will cut down on racial profiling. Opponents raised safety concerns, noting that as initially passed, it would have blocked officers from stopping a vehicle driving at night with no headlights.

The bill’s patrons called it an oversight and agreed to amendments proposed by Gov. Ralph Northam that allows stops only in cases where more than one headlight or brake light is out. Other violations the legislation downgrades to secondary offenses include: broken or loud exhaust system, tinted windows, objects dangling from a rearview mirror, smoking in a car with a minor present or a state inspection that is less than four months past its expiration date.

Prohibiting police from initiating searches based on the smell of marijuana

This reform was rolled into the legislation limiting minor traffic stops. Smell-based searches for marijuana have been a subject of debate in Virginia since earlier this year, when lawmakers voted to downgrade possession of small amounts of marijuana to a civil infraction punishable by a $25 fine.

The searches, which are difficult to challenge after the fact due to ephemeral nature of odors, have faced growing scrutiny in legal circles and accusations that officers sometimes use it as an excuse to initiate a search where they wouldn’t otherwise have probable cause.

Mandating racial bias, de-escalation and crisis intervention training for police

The legislation also creates a standardized curriculum for police academies around the state and requires police officers to undergo a psychological evaluation before they can be hired. A companion bill expands the membership of the committee that will create the new standards to include representatives from minority, social justice and mental health organizations.

Limiting when police can use chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene in excessive force

The legislation says police can only use neck restraints when they are “immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person.” Police officers who violate the law would be subject to administrative decertification. What impact the legislation will have in practice is a subject of ongoing debate. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, had pushed for a total ban and criminal penalties for violations. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, argued the legislation means police who use chokeholds inappropriately could face prosecution under the state’s strangulation statute.

related bill requires officers to intervene if they see a colleague engaged in unlawful or excessive force and subjecting them to disciplinary sanctions if they don’t.

Imposing modest limits on military equipment available to law enforcement

The language, included in an omnibus reform bill passed by the Senate, blocks departments from acquiring certain military equipment, including weaponized drones, combat aircraft, grenades and grenade launchers, mine-resistant armored vehicles, bayonets, tanks and .50 caliber or higher weaponry.

With the exception of the mine-resistant vehicles (MRAPS), which some departments say they use for standoff situations and rescues, law enforcement groups said they don’t expect the new rules to impact the way they do business. And if departments do decide they want the equipment in question, they can ask the state for a waiver.

Affirming that local prosecutors have the authority to dismiss whatever cases they want

The bill is the General Assembly’s response to disputes that have emerged in recent years between reform-minded commonwealth’s attorneys and local judges, some of whom refused to go along with prosecutors’ policies of dismissing low-level marijuana crimes. Supporters say they consider it less a change to current law than a correction to the way some in the judiciary were interpreting it.

Making it a hate crime to make false 911 calls motivated by race or other bias

Called the “CAREN Act” when a similar measure was adopted in San Francisco, it creates a harsher, felony penalty for people who lodge false complaints with the police that are motivated by bias stemming from race, religious conviction, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, color or national origin.

Authorizing the attorney general to investigate local police departments

The legislation’s patron, Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said the bill was inspired by the U.S. Department of Justice’s refusal to initiate a “pattern or practice” investigation into charges of discrimination in the Portsmouth Police Department, where the state’s first black female police chief said she was forced to resign because “some quite frankly did not like taking direction from an African American female.”

Authorizing the state to inspect ICE detention facilities in Virginia

Inspired by a deadly and poorly contained coronavirus outbreak at an ICE-contracted facility in Farmville, the legislation subjects the detention centers to the same standards and health requirements as other local jails. It will also allow the state to investigate detainee deaths.

Banning police officers from having sex with detainees

The new legislation, which won unanimous support, makes Virginia one of at least a dozen states to pass or tighten laws governing sexual relations between police and arrestees after an 18-year-old woman in New York City alleged she was raped by two on duty police officers, who insisted she consented despite being handcuffed in the back of a police van.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.