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Chesterfield Chief shares concerns over 'headlight bill'

Posted at 8:13 AM, Oct 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-16 08:13:17-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Under current law, if you're driving with a headlight out at night, police have the authority to stop you and investigate.

But legislation that sits on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam's desk could soon change that, according to Chesterfield Police Chief Jeff Katz.

And that has the chief and families of those killed in DUI crashes expressing concern.

Senate Bill 5029 aims to reform the manner in which police stop drivers and conduct searches after smelling marijuana in vehicles.

The bill would also prohibit police from pulling over drivers based solely on other factors like driving without a light on your license plate, driving with defective equipment, and driving without brake lights.

The way the bill is written, according to Katz, would also prohibit police from pulling over drivers who are driving at night without headlights.

"It binds the hands of all police officers to not be able to let them know, that ‘hey, you have a headlight out or brake light out,’” said Katz. “These are safety measures and we are not safer if our law enforcement personnel lack the ability to pull someone over."

Law enforcement agencies across the country say statistics help them come up with crime-fighting strategies.

Stats from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration indicate 55-60% of people that operate cars without lights at night, are impaired.

Vanessa Haislip, whose daughter Melissa was killed by a drunk driver in 2014, urged Governor Northam to speak with victims' families before signing the bill into law.

“Come talk to us that are being affected and find out how we feel, don’t just look at numbers. You need to talk to a real person that walks in these shoes daily," she said.

The bill was part of sweeping police reform voted on during the 2020 special General Assembly session following a summer of protests and social unrest.

Supporters of Senate Bill 5029 hoped it would lead to fewer traffic stops involving Black drivers.

“This is a small but important step to decriminalizing Black and brown bodies of being targeted by this longtime policing tool, which was really created by politicizing the war on drugs,” Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, said after the state Senate passed the bill in August.

Sen. Louise Lucas (D - Portsmouth) is the author of Senate Bill 5029.

She has not yet responded to questions about her reaction to Chief Katz's position on the legislation.

A spokesperson for Gov. Northam said the governor would carefully review the legislation before making a decision to sign or veto the bill.