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Black drivers in Virginia still more likely to be stopped as searches drop

A silver Virginia State Police vehicle
Crixell Matthews
VPM News File
A Virginia State Police officer drives outside of the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond.

Vehicle and personal searches overall have plummeted since a 2021 law on minor infractions took effect.

Virginia law enforcement officers remain more likely to pull over Black and Hispanic drivers than white ones in traffic stops and searches, according to a state report released last week.

At the same time, the rate of vehicle searches continues to decline compared to the first report published in 2021. For example, 2.5% of Black drivers who were stopped had their car searched or were personally searched from July 1, 2022 through March 31, 2023. That’s less than half the rate law enforcement agencies reported two years ago, although the methodology appears to have shifted slightly over the period.

The reports were the result of the Community Policing Act, a law passed in 2020 requiring law enforcement agencies ranging from Virginia State Police to local police departments to collect stops and search data and report it annually.

Rob Poggenklass, executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, a criminal justice group that pushed for the law’s passage, suggested the reduction in disparities in police searches may be the product of a different legal change: a 2020 special session law, passed by Democrats in the wake of that summer’s racial justice protests, that prohibited law enforcement from searching vehicles without a warrant if they smell marijuana or pulling them over for relatively violations like tinted windows. That law took effect in early 2021.

“We knew that those searches and stops were having disproportionate effects on Black and Hispanic Virginians,” Poggenklass said. “And that's exactly what we're seeing.”

Defense attorneys and Democratic lawmakers said the previous law created a pretext for racial profiling. Republican lawmakers and law enforcement groups argued changing that law would make the state less safe.

The 2023 report on traffic stops still shows strong disparities in who gets stopped by law enforcement.

Black drivers accounted for 30% of traffic stops despite making up 19% of the state’s licensed drivers — numbers that remained virtually unchanged from last year’s report. Hispanic and American Indian drivers were also slightly overrepresented in stops, while white and Asian drivers were stopped less frequently relative to the size of their populations.

Disparities also persisted in police searches and arrests, with Black and Hispanic drivers facing higher rates in both areas. But the extent of those disparities has decreased.

It’s not clear all aspects of the changes to stops and searches had their intended effect. Law enforcement officers across the state made more than 650,000 stops during the period covered by the report, up 13% from the 2022 figures. Poggenklass speculated that the pandemic’s waning may have played a role in the increase.

In bolded text, the reports’ unnamed authors at the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services cautioned against drawing firm conclusions from the disparities.

“Many data elements could play influential roles in racial/ethnic patterns of traffic enforcement but are unavailable to DCJS,” the report states, citing factors like the race of the officer performing the stop and agency priorities.

The report notes that officers are often guessing drivers’ race; asking drivers that question “could raise constitutional concerns or escalate the perception of conflict in certain situations.”

John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, echoed the argument that the report didn’t say much about racial bias in policing because of the lack of clarity on drivers’ race. And he gave another possible explanation for the drop in traffic stops: a 2021 law that requires search warrants to be executed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. — unless an officer gets a sign off from a judge, magistrate or for “good cause shown by particularized facts in an affidavit.”

“That could be a part of it,” Jones said. “But we don't know what the real reason is until we research that point.”

But Del. Don Scott (D–Portsmouth), minority leader of the House of Delegates, argued the reports’ findings were more clear cut.

“This study shows that Black people are still disproportionately likely to get stopped for the same conduct,” Scott said in a statement.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.