Special Subcommittee Studying "Driving While Black" and Traffic Stops of Minority Drivers
June 22, 1999, Richmond
Chairman Robinson called the meeting to order, noting that as the work of the subcommittee goes forward, it may be useful to supplement the subcommittee's membership (10 members of the House Transportation Committee) with representatives of the Senate Transportation Committee and the House and Senate Courts of Justice Committees as well.
Identifying the ProblemThe chairman explained that there is a considerable and rapidly growing body of anecdotal evidence that law-enforcement agencies and officers are improperly targeting persons of color traveling the highways (particularly but not exclusively the I-95 corridor) for pretextual traffic stops, and using these traffic stops as opportunities to search vehicles, their contents, drivers, and other occupants. The national "war on drugs" is often mentioned as a justification for these traffic stops.
While the law-enforcement community has been all but unanimous in denying the use of race-based profiling in making traffic stops, African-Americans and other persons of color are increasingly expressing their belief that such profiling is widespread and results in a disproportionate number of traffic stops of non-white motorists, often for no legitimate law-enforcement purpose. Congressional efforts to deal legislatively with this situation, often described as "driving while black" or "driving while black or brown," have so far been unsuccessful, and it may be useful for the state legislature to assess this matter in its Virginia context and, if appropriate, deal with it through legislation in the 2000 Session of the General Assembly. A failure to act may exacerbate the already strained relationship between law-enforcement and the African-American communities.
Need for More DataComments by several subcommittee members explored the link between "driving while black" and legislation (defeated during the 1999 Session) that would have provided for primary enforcement of Virginia's laws requiring the use of motor vehicle safety belts. Several members lamented the lack of other-than-anecdotal data on the "driving while black" situation in Virginia and cautioned that a total prohibition of all profiling by law-enforcement agencies might have undesirable unintended consequences.
Spokesmen for several law-enforcement agencies and associations offered their assistance in determining whether Virginia has a "driving while black" problem, its extent (if any), and developing appropriate and effective means of dealing with any instances of misconduct by law-enforcement personnel.
Representatives of law-enforcement agencies and the insurance industry discussed with the members the costs and benefits of equipping law-enforcement vehicles with video systems capable of providing complete documentation of each traffic stop involving the vehicle's driver. It was emphasized that such systems would require special lighting (for nighttime or low-light situations), special security (both in-vehicle and off-vehicle, to prevent tampering by law-enforcement personnel), and additional documentation (such as a record of the reason for the stop, which might not be obvious from the video record).
Chairman Robinson instructed staff to seek input from members of the Virginia judiciary and distribute to subcommittee members (i) related legislation from other states, (ii) pending federal legislation (the "Conyers bill") related to race-based profiling, and (iii) the ACLU's study of "driving while black."
The Honorable William P. Robinson, Jr., Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Alan B. Wambold