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Pretext Stops to get Scrutiny in Special Session

Michael Pope

Do you have rosary beads dangling from your rearview mirror? Maybe a parking pass?

Police officers can use that as a pretext to stop you and ask to search your vehicle.

One day a few months ago, a police officer in Hampton stopped Charles Brown and said the light illuminating his license plate was not working.  “It sounded like a made-up reason to stop me,” Brown remembers.

Then a few days later, he was stopped again. This time it was because part of his tail lights weren’t functioning. “It’s not even like it was the whole tail light that was broken or busted off. It was one little light.”

The reasons seemed bogus to him. “I think it was just harassment and whatnot. They see a black person in a car, and they’re just trying to get their quota.” And then something surprising happened.  “He asked if he could search, and I was like, ’No.’ I told him I don’t consent to a search.”

He knew refusing the officer’s request for searching his car was an invitation for trouble. But he he didn’t believe there was any reason for the officer to want to search his car. Brad Haywood at Justice Forward Virginia says officers frequently use things like license plate illumination as a pretext to stop Black drivers.  “It’s essentially a cover story," Haywood says. "It’s a fake reason or a lie, and it’s to cover for the real reason, which by itself would violate the law.”

Haywood, who is white, says he’s been pulled over plenty of times. But no officer has ever asked to search his car.  “I can only imagine the damage that does to the standing in which you hold that officer and that department who’s done that to you, who instinctively sees you as a threat, who sees you as someone who is likely to be committing a crime. I don’t think white people honestly think about this enough.”

Lawmakers are thinking about it, and they’ll be considering a proposal to crack down on pretextual policing -- eliminating the ability of officers to pull over drivers for a host of reasons, things like a license plate isn’t illuminated or a parking pass is dangling from a rearview mirror. 

Republican Senator Mark Obenshain says Democrats have been advocating in favor of pretextual policing for years, advocating for cops to pull over people for using a cell phone or smoking while a child is in the car.  "I hear bills introduced by these social reformers every year creating new opportunities for the police to stop somebody on a primary offense, and nobody’s been concerned about it," Obenshain argues. "But now in light of civil unrest, burning buildings and protests all of a sudden people are concerned about it.”

Obenshain says Republicans are willing to listen to Democrats about pretextual stops to crack down on racially biased policing.  But he wants some kind of consistency with pretextual policing aimed at changing people’s behavior with cell phones or cigarettes.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.