Following the 2020 deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, protesters across the country took to the streets demanding that police work be done differently.
In response to the protests, Virginia's General Assembly passed several laws during a special session in the fall to increase law enforcement accountability. The reform measures included laws that ended pretextual stops and "no-knock" warrants as well as one requiring demographic data be collected with each traffic stop.
“Too many families, in Virginia and across our nation, live in fear of being hurt or killed by police,” Gov. Ralph Northam said in October upon signing the laws. “These new laws represent a tremendous step forward in rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
But local law enforcement have mixed feelings about the changes. Some expressed no real concern, saying it's their job to carry out the laws.
“It’s going to cause us to adapt, which we do all the time,” said Scotty Thompson, captain of investigations with the Shenandoah County Sheriff's Office. “Laws change all the time, year in and year out.”
But other local law enforcement officers expressed dissatisfaction with what the changes allow criminals to do.
“It’s going to make us less effective,” Mount Jackson Police Chief Jeff Sterner said.
For instance, if one of his officers gets information from an informant that there are drugs in a car, officers need probable cause to pull the car over, Sterner said.
Previously, police could pull over a vehicle for having a tail- or headlight out.
“They have taken some stuff that law enforcement has used for years...which in turn will only give people who don’t choose to live by society's laws a better opportunity to get away with it,” Sterner said.
Sterner said his department doesn’t have to worry about officers being biased.
“Knock on wood. Right now, [with] my six officers, I don’t have that issue,” Sterner said. “We treat everybody as fair as we can treat anybody regardless of what sex or race you are."
The laws could prevent bad cops from doing bad things, said Front Royal Police Department Chief Kahle Magalis. “But it does make life a little more difficult on the officers who are out here trying to do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons.”
One law enacted in March mandates that police serve warrants to a person's home — including a person's car if that's where they live — only between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., although there are some exceptions.
Thompson said the time restriction on warrants and the end to no-knock warrants shouldn’t be an issue for his agency. “We’ve had a few search warrants that we’ve served since the new restrictions came out, and it's really not had any impact on us at all,” he said.
But traffic stops will likely decrease with the end of pretextual stops, Thompson said, adding “Does it put restrictions on us? Yes. Does it prevent us from doing our job? No.”
Warren County Sheriff's Office Capt. Robert Mumaw said he understands why the lawmakers made the changes.
“I think the legislators made it to where there’s more checks and balances before the warrants are issued. Which in turn does hinder law enforcement a little bit, but it also protects the citizens," Mumaw said. "There’s been some issues across the country with getting warrants, executing warrants and how they’re done.”
In terms of prosecuting cases, Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell said the changes are the result of legislation rushed over Zoom meetings (because of the COVID-19 pandemic), without considering the consequences.
The outcome is that the news laws have shortcut a half century of case law that balanced a citizen's right to privacy against what's considered a reasonable action by law enforcement in solving crimes, Bell said.
“It turns it from an analysis that balances public interest into a game of Mother May I,” Bell said. “If you did not say Mother May I, you don’t get to take your giant step forward.”
The idea is to no longer have law enforcement act on petty violations in hopes of finding other criminal acts for which they have no evidence, Bell said.
“You might want to get the spider out of the house, but you don’t burn down the house to do it,” Bell said of the changes.
Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter said the data collection at traffic stops — including a person’s age, gender, race and sex as well as if the stop ended in a violation or a warning — is creating a hardship for his agency.
The Sheriff's Office current system doesn’t have the capability to record the data as desired, so someone might have to collect and upload the data manually. The Strasburg Police Department was granted another full-time employee in the current fiscal year to help with the manual data collection.
“I know the Sheriff’s Association, the Virginia Chiefs of Police, the Virginia State Police, all those organizations were trying to tell the governor’s office, trying to tell the leaders in the legislature, that they needed to think through these issues because there was no way to collect the data the way they were asking for,” Carter said.