Police pulling over vehicle on the streets

Criminal Justice Reform Laws Taking Effect in March 2021

In May of 2020, the brutal police killing of George Floyd shook the nation. Floyd died after an officer put pressure on his neck for over eight minutes, and outraged followed. The Black Lives Matter movement had already been active for years, and Breonna Taylor had been killed in her sleep only months earlier.

Protests broke out all over the world, not just in the States. The requests for police reform grew loud, and Virginia heard the call. Starting in March of 2021, wide, sweeping changes are coming to Virginia’s justice system. These changes affect the beat cop and the judge. Every corner of our justice system is will be altered by these new laws.

We will be taking a closer look at some of the laws that are changing in Virginia.

Certain Traffic Violations Are Getting a Downgrade

Traffic violations come in two categories, primary and secondary. If someone commits a primary violation an officer can pull the person over for that offense. Speeding, for example, is a primary violation. Other violations of the law are considered secondary violations. While still illegal, police can not pull you over for committing a secondary violation. You can’t be pulled over for a secondary violation, but if you were already pulled over for another offense, the police can cite you on any secondary offenses you may also have committed. An example in Virginia would be not having a seatbelt on which means if the officer stops you for speeding a ticket can also be issued for not wearing your seatbelt.

Police handle first and secondary violations by issuing you a summons or a ticket to come to court or by arresting you.

Many people have long argued that police have too much power to stop your car. In their view, a power-hungry officer will use minor traffic offenses as an excuse to pull you over to try to catch you on something else or even to racially profile people or harass drivers. With the scores of viral videos where routine traffic stops ended violently, there has been much concern that a racially biased officer may target black drivers, looking for any excuse to pull them over. Such a situation is called a “pretextual traffic stop.”

Starting in March, Virginia officers will have less authority to stop your car for minor violations of the law. Many traffic offenses are being downgraded from primary to secondary.

Traffic offenses that will be downgraded include:

  • Problems with your exhaust, whether it be broken or noisy
  • Windows that are tinted too darkly
  • Objects dangling from a rearview mirror
  • Smoking in a car that’s carrying a minor
  • Being fewer than four months past a state inspection expiration date

Some other changes made now prohibit police from stopping you or searching you or your car based on the smell of marijuana. Marijuana possession in small amounts has been downgraded to a $25 civil fine, so using smell as a reason for searching no longer makes sense. Secondly, critics have often argued that the smell of something is a very flimsy reason to execute a search.

Local Prosecutor Can Dismiss Any Case

In early 2019, several elected state prosecutors announced that, despite the letter of the law, they would no longer be prosecuting people for minor marijuana possession charges. This decision was in response to Virginia’s disproportionate arrests of black people on marijuana charges. Only 42% of Virginia’s population is black, but black people made up 81% of its marijuana arrests.

Some judges went along with these prosecutors, and some fought back. Across the state, differing views on a prosecutor’s authority moved the issue back and forth, and many officials were making decisions based on their own interpretations of the law.

In an attempt to stop all that, this new law firmly establishes that a prosecutor’s job is to decide whether or not a case should move forward to trial. They will use their own discretion, regardless of the charge. Judges may agree or disagree, but the first step in prosecution lies in the hands of the prosecutor.

The Law Office of Ann Thayer, PLLC will be keeping a close eye on these new laws and how they develop. We are here to uphold the rights of citizens, and we want to keep authorities accountable. If you believe your rights have been violated by law enforcement, reach out for a free consultation. You can call us at (703) 940-0001 or contact us online.