In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly met in a special session to address key racial justice issues throughout the Commonwealth.
As a result of this special session, the General Assembly passed several new laws and regulations on traffic violations.
These new laws went into effect on March 1st, 2021.
To summarize, the changes brought on by this bill have downgraded several traffic violations from primary to secondary offenses.
We’ll define these terms in more detail below, but this gist is that Virginia police officers can no longer pull someone over for minor traffic violations such as tinted windows or expired tags.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of primary and secondary traffic violations in Virginia.
Importantly, you should immediately consult with an attorney if you are pulled over on the basis of any of the secondary violations listed below.
Doing so could provide a strong defense should you choose to contest the citation or charges against you.
Primary vs. Secondary Traffic Violations in Virginia
All Virginia traffic violations are divided into one of two categories:
- Primary Violations — Offenses that allow an officer to pull you over in order to issue you a citation. For example, speeding is a primary violation, and police officers can pull you over solely because you were speeding.
- Secondary Violations — Offenses that, by themselves, cannot lead to a traffic stop. For example, certain minor offenses such as having a headlight out or an adult passenger not wearing a seatbelt have historically been categorized as secondary violations.
Over the past few years the Virginia legislature has increasingly focused on properly categorizing certain traffic violations as either primary or secondary.
For example, one of the most public cases of the differences between primary and secondary offenses appears in Virginia’s seatbelt laws.
Specifically, there has been an ongoing battle in the Virginia legislature between groups that want to classify failing to wear a seatbelt as a primary offense and groups that want to keep Virginia’s laws the way they currently are (where the infraction is a secondary offense).
As of writing this article, failing to wear a seatbelt as an adult over the age of 18 is now a primary offense in Virginia.
This means that police officers can pull you over for failing to wear a seatbelt.
Virginia Distracted Driving & Cell Phone Laws: A Quick Example
As another quick example that’s a bit more recent, a new law took effect on January 1st, 2021 which states that using a cell phone while driving is now a primary offense in Virginia.
While previous laws simply banned talking on the phone while driving, this new law specifically states that it is unlawful for drivers “to hold a handheld personal communications device” for any reason (except for in certain cases outlined in the Code, such as to report an emergency).
While you can still talk handsfree on the phone or mount your phone for navigation, you can no longer hold your phone in your hands while driving, even while stopped at a red light.
An Overview of the New Rules for 2021
As we mentioned in the introduction, several new laws went into place on March 1st which downgraded formerly primary offenses to secondary offenses.
To list a few of the most notable ones:
- Marijuana Odor Coming From Your Car — Previously, smelling marijuana was enough for an officer to pull you over and search your car. This is no longer the case. As stated in the Virginia Code: “No law-enforcement officer…may lawfully stop, search, or seize any person, place, or thing solely on the basis of the odor of marijuana.”
- Faulty Exhaust System — Loud or defective muffler systems are no longer a primary offense in Virginia. Notably, this includes motorcycles and mopeds as well as cars.
- Items Suspended in Your Car — Suspending items in your car (such as from a rear-view mirror) is now a secondary traffic violation in Virginia.
- Tinted Windows — Window tinting past a certain threshold is still illegal, but is now a secondary offense.
- Expired Tags and Stickers — You can no longer be pulled over for a safety inspection or registration sticker that is less than four months out of date.
- Brake Lights — Previously, officers could pull drivers over to notify them that their brake lights or tail lights were out. This is no longer the case.
- Pedestrian Laws — Finally, police officers can no longer stop pedestrians who cross highways in dangerous manners (such as in an area without a crosswalk).
While there are a few other changes to the laws (such as the presence of non-stock lights on certain vehicles), this list covers the big ones worth knowing about.
Why Were These Laws Changed?
Put simply, these laws were changed because of a pushback against police stopping people for minor violations such as expired tags or marijuana odor.
As we mentioned above, these laws stem from a special session that took place in late 2020 with the goal of addressing racial issues in Virginia’s judicial system.
These offenses were specifically targeted in an effort to reduce pretextual policing and racial profiling, as many were used to initiate traffic stops with otherwise innocent individuals who seemed “suspicious” in some way, shape, or form.
As a result of several new laws which went into effect on March 1st, 2021, many Virginia traffic violations have been downgraded from primary to secondary offenses.
This means that police officers can no longer pull someone over simply on the basis of a violation such as a bad tail light or the smell of marijuana.
If you’ve been stopped by a police officer and charged with a crime as a result of one of these infractions, you should speak with an attorney immediately, as you may be able to argue that the stop itself was illegal in the first place.