As of July 1, 2021, there are several new traffic law amendments that greatly widen legal protections for drivers in the Commonwealth of Virginia. (Last year’s notable traffic law changes were summarized in this previous post from 2020.)
Up until now, police officers in Virginia routinely used “equipment violations” to justify traffic stops for Driving Under the Influence and Driving While Intoxicated (DUI/DWI) investigation purposes. But with brand new legislation now effective, the Virginia General Assembly has severely restricted a police officer’s authority to pull a driver over for an equipment violation alone. These new amendments may now give drivers charged with Driving Under the Influence or Driving While Intoxicated (DUI/DWI) under § 18.2-266 a fighting chance in court.
For example, before the new amendments, a police officer was allowed to initiate a traffic stop of a driver specifically for a third brake light being too dim, or for objects dangling in the windshield, or even for the smell of marijuana. Then after stopping the vehicle, the officer would be allowed to perform routine DUI/DWI investigations, and if such evidence was found, the officer would then be allowed to charge the driver with a criminal class one misdemeanor for driving under the influence. These types of pretextual stops were the basis for a large number of DUI/DWI charges for many drivers across Virginia for many years. Now, the Virginia General Assembly has amended several laws to give Virginia drivers much greater protection from these types of traffic stops.
Effective July 1, 2021, many equipment violation statutes have been amended to include this phrase:
“No law-enforcement officer shall stop a motor vehicle for a violation of this section. No evidence discovered or obtained as a result of a stop in violation of this subsection, including evidence discovered or obtained with the operator’s consent, shall be admissible in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding.”
46.2-1003. Illegal use of defective and unsafe equipment. This statute makes it illegal for any person to have defective or unsafe equipment on the vehicle. The new amendment prevents an officer from stopping a vehicle specifically for defective equipment under this statute.
46.2-1013. Tail lights. This statute requires that every vehicle have two red lights plainly visible from a distance of 500 feet on the rear of the vehicle. This statute had previously been used by police officers to stop vehicles with tail lights that were “too dim.” The new amendment prevents an officer from stopping a vehicle for this reason.
46.2-1014. Brake lights. This statute requires that every vehicle be equipped with at least two working brake lights. Police officers were formerly able to stop a vehicle because a brake light was in defective condition, regardless of whether it affected the driver’s ability to drive the vehicle or not. Now officers are not allowed to stop a vehicle specifically for defects with the brake lights on a vehicle.
46.2-1014.1. Supplemental high mount stop light. This statute requires that vehicles newer than 1986 be equipped with a “third brake light.” In some jurisdictions in Hampton Roads, Virginia, this statute was used almost exclusively as the basis for DUI investigations simply because the officer thought the third brake light was “too dim.” Police officers are now prevented from stopping a vehicle specifically for a third brake light being in defective condition.
46.2-1030. When lights to be lighted; number of lights to be lighted at any time; use of warning lights. This statute prescribes when a driver must turn on a vehicle’s headlights. In Virginia Beach alone, hundreds of DUI charges have been brought specifically because police officers were able to stop a vehicle without its headlights on and perform DUI investigations. The amendment to this statute differs slightly from the other updates, however, an officer is still allowed to stop a vehicle for not having its headlights activated at the appropriate time, but “No evidence discovered or obtained as the result of a stop in violation of this subsection, including evidence discovered or obtained with the operator’s consent, shall be admissible in any trial, hearing, or other proceeding.”
46.2-1049. Exhaust system in good working order. This statute is exactly what you would think it is, but the new amendment forbids an officer from stopping a vehicle specifically because the exhaust system is not in good working order.
46.2-1052. Window tint. This statute not only prohibited window tint that was too dark, but also many other types of conditions that might appear on windows (i.e., mirroring, stickers, etc.). An officer is now prevented from stopping a vehicle specifically for one of these tint or sticker violations.
46.2-1054. Suspension of objects or alteration of vehicle so as to obstruct driver’s view. This statute is commonly referred to as the “object dangling in windshield” law. This statute was used for a long time to provide the basis for DUI investigations in the city of Chesapeake. The new amendment prevents an officer from stopping a vehicle specifically for objects in the windshield that obstruct the driver’s view.
18.2-250.1. Possession of marijuana unlawful. As many know, possession of marijuana of small amounts has been decriminalized in Virginia. However, there are still many applications of marijuana that remain unlawful (like buying or selling marijuana or driving while using marijuana). However, police officers are now prevented from stopping a vehicle simply for the smell of marijuana. The new amendment states: “No law-enforcement officer … may lawfully stop, search, or seize any person, place, or thing solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana and no evidence discovered or obtained pursuant to a violation of this subsection, including evidence discovered or obtained with the person’s consent, shall be admissible in any trial, hearing or other proceeding.” In many jurisdictions in Virginia, the smell of marijuana was the basis for a huge number of DUI/DWI and possession of drug charges. These vehicles were stopped simply because the officer believed they smelled marijuana coming from a vehicle. The new amendment prevents this type of conduct.
However, as the saying goes, if you drive drunk in Virginia, you will be caught. Even with these new amendments, there are still many laws that a Virginia police officer may use to justify a traffic stop for a DUI investigation. I.e., improper lane change; improper signal; weaving within lane; failure to stop at stop sign or signal; reckless driving; speeding, and the list goes on and on. These new amendments may help those stopped specifically for equipment violations after July 1, 2021, but they do not make it legal to drink and drive or consume marijuana and drive.
If you have been charged with Driving Under the Influence or Driving While Intoxicated (DUI /DWI), these new amendments may help in the defense of your case. An experienced Virginia traffic defense attorney can help guide you through these complicated areas of the law. We offer free initial consultations for anyone charged with a DUI/DWI in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Newport News, Hampton, Suffolk, Portsmouth, or Northampton on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Schedule your free initial consultation and speak with an experienced Virginia traffic defense attorney today.