Legislative amendments from 2020 that prohibit a traffic stop for an expired registration or a broken taillight are retroactive, a Roanoke County circuit judge has ruled in a case of first impression.
As a result, a woman facing drug charges after being stopped last summer was able to suppress a packet of meth found in her car.
The case is Commonwealth v. Woods (VLW 021-8-086). Roanoke County Circuit Judge Charles N. Dorsey made the ruling.
The General Assembly passed two identical bills, Senate Bill 5029 and House Bill 5058, during its special session last August. The bills stated that an officer may not “lawfully stop” a vehicle for a series of minor violations, including expired registration and malfunctions of certain equipment, including lights. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bills Nov. 9, with an effective date of March 1, 2021.
In June 2020, however, the defendant, Ariana Ajule Woods, had been pulled over by a Roanoke County police officer for having a high mount light out and an expired registration. After the officer pulled Woods over, he asked for consent to search the vehicle, which Woods granted.
According to court documents, the officer found “a small bag of a crystal substance” in a wallet on the center console of the car during the search. Later analysis by the Department of Forensic Science found that the substance was methamphetamine.
Her lawyer, Roanoke attorney Brad Braford, moved to suppress the meth.
“Can recent statutory changes, which exclude evidence obtained in newly forbidden traffic stops, be applied retroactively?” Judge Charles N. Dorsey asked in his June 9 opinion.
Dorsey wrote that “it is not in dispute” that the statutes went into effect after the officer stopped Woods, nor is it in dispute that the officer’s actions “were lawful during the stop.”
And he answered his own rhetorical question with a yes. The statutory changes amounted to procedural changes to the law, not a change in substance. Dorsey granted the suppression motion.
Dorsey looked to Virginia Code § 1-239, which creates “the important exception that ‘the proceedings thereafter held shall conform, so far as practicable, to the laws in force at the time of such proceedings.’”
“The exception for retroactive application of procedural laws is both codified in the Code and supported by appellate case law, and the General Assembly is presumed to know the law,” the judge wrote. Dorsey added that because of this, retroactivity of statutes that modify procedural rights are allowed for by Virginia law, regardless of whether the General Assembly explicitly stated that in their legislation.
The Supreme Court of Virginia designated the difference between substantive and procedural changes in 2015, stating “substantive rights… are included within that part of the law dealing with creation of duties rights and obligations” while “procedural or remedial law… prescribes methods of obtaining redress or enforcement of rights.”
In ultimately ruling in favor of Woods, Dorsey wrote the new legislation “merely forbids the police from initiating a traffic stop in order to enforce a violation of one or more of the statutes amended in this way.”
“In sum, these amendments do not make a substantive change to the original statutes. They merely add a statutory exclusionary rule of evidence,” Dorsey wrote.
Dorsey continued, “Rules of evidence are procedural in nature as they deal with ‘methods of obtaining redress’ and not the ‘creation of duties, rights, and obligations.’”
Braford said, “I thought the judge gave pretty thoughtful consideration of my arguments and I’m very appreciative of the decision that was reached.”
The commonwealth was represented in this case by Roanoke County Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Ashley E. Sweet, who did not respond to a request for comment.
Leesburg traffic attorney Jon Huddleston said the decision “is a very interesting interpretation of the statute,” adding that he does not anticipate many cases falling under this specific scenario.
“It may have huge implications from a conceptual standpoint, however, given the nature of the actual charge that is being applied retroactively, I don’t think there are a huge number of cases that originate based on lights being out or inspection stickers,” Huddleston said.