The Purcellville Community Policing Advisory Committee met for the second time Monday night, in another virtual setting on Zoom, to discuss a new law that changes the ways police conduct traffic stops and a piece of legislation that died in the House of Delegates.
Under the new traffic stop law, which takes effect March 1, law enforcement officers are prohibited from stopping, searching and seizing people, places or things “solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana.”
Committee Chairman Christopher Baltimore said many people are confused by the new law, and the general decriminalization of marijuana in the commonwealth.
McAlister clarified the law simply stipulates that officers can’t take action if they smell marijuana coming from the car of a driver they pull over. She emphasized that officers don’t seek out drivers who may be under the influence of marijuana when conducting traffic stops. Instead, they look for erratic driving behavior, such as speeding, driving too slow and swerving.
“That’s our first suspicion to pull someone over,” she said.
That same law also prohibits police from pulling a driver over for driving without a license plate light, brake lights or a loud exhaust system. It also excludes officers from pulling drivers over for having excessively tinted windows.
McAlister said those new rules may create unsafe situations for other drivers on the road, and for law enforcement officers conducting traffic stops.
More accidents are likely if vehicles don’t have working brake lights and having officers approach vehicles with heavily tinted, or entirely blacked-out, windows in traffic stops also presents a danger, she said.
McAlister said the state legislature may have moved too quickly to create that law. She said many legislators probably were under the impression that larger legal disputes—perhaps even those involving claims of systemic racism—were escalating from situations in which police officers were pulling drivers over for trivial reasons.
“They were so quick to make these laws, to make that police reform,” she said. “But I think we have to think of the safety of everybody on the roadway.”
The committee also discussed a bill that would have prohibited law enforcement officers from claiming sovereign immunity and qualified immunity defenses in lawsuits against them. It also would have assigned law enforcement agencies with additional liability when hiring, supervising, training and retaining officers.
A House of Delegates Courts of Justice subcommittee tabled the bill Jan. 29.
Deputy Police Chief Dave Dailey noted that police officers are not immune from lawsuits. “Nothing’s further from the truth,” he said, adding that sovereign immunity and qualified immunity defenses prevent “nuisance lawsuits.”