‘We live in a free society’: Va. Senate revolts against bill letting police stop cars over seatbelts

A police car in Richmond, Va. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

One state senator compared it to authoritarian tactics he saw on a trip to Moscow. A different lawmaker told a harrowing tale of someone being interrogated on their way to grandma’s house. Another said the General Assembly was flirting with a “nightmare for Virginians.”

The issue inciting the ominous talk on the Senate floor? Seatbelts. Specifically, a road safety bill that would have let police officers pull drivers over for not wearing one.

The legislation didn’t appear to stoke much controversy until the final days of the legislative session, when the Senate voted to kill it two days in a row over bipartisan concerns that police could abuse the law to hassle motorists at will.

“The bottom line is at some point we have to limit the number of stops police can make,” said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax. “Not because we don’t trust police. But because, quite frankly, we live in a free society.”

Some senators argued the law would be applied disproportionately to drivers from certain demographics.

“Whether it’s intentional or not, the people that are stopped for this violation will overwhelmingly be youths and minorities,” said Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg.

The seatbelt law was one of several transportation initiatives championed by Gov. Ralph Northam this year.

Under existing state law, not wearing a seatbelt is a primary offense for drivers under 18, meaning police can pull young drivers over for it even there was no other violation. The proposed legislation would have broadened that law to adults and have it apply to occupants of any seat, not just the front seats.

Proponents of the bill called it a straightforward safety measure that would reduce deaths from car crashes by giving drivers a stronger incentive to strap in.

“The greatest loss of liberty is the loss of life,” said Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Alexandria, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “This is about safety. This is about what we are going to teach our children.”

Seatbelt use is mandatory for adults and violations can bring a civil fine of up to $25. But police have to have some other reason — like speed, defective equipment or suspicion that some other crime is being committed — in order to make a stop.

Responding to the concerns about racial profiling, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, noted the bill had strong support from African American lawmakers.

“Thee number of people who are dying in car accidents because the’re not wearing seatbelts has mitigated the concerns of the Legislative Black Caucus to the point where two members of the Black Caucus are carrying this bill,” McClellan said. “And all of them voted for it.”

The bill included a provision for an advisory council that would track traffic stop data to “review whether the enforcement of highway safety policies has a disproportionate impact on minority or low-income populations.”

The final version of the bill had passed the House of Delegates Sunday on a 49-44 vote.

“Who’s voting for it in the House is of no moment to me,” Petersen said in response to McClellan’s point. “As long as I have breath in my body, I will not allow what I saw in Moscow to happen in Virginia.”

The bill failed in the Senate on an 11-28 vote.