Primary and Secondary Traffic Offenses in Virginia

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In traffic law, there are two types of violations, primary and secondary. In this article, we discuss the differences between the two, and we will explore some of Virginia’s recent reforms on such offenses.

Secondary Offenses

The police cannot stop a car for a secondary offense. To charge you, they must already have you stopped for another reason. Then they can add the secondary offense to your charges. Examples of these offenses include broken headlights or passengers without seatbelts. Penalties tend to be minor. They can be anything from a simple citation to a small fee. You could technically fight a secondary offense if you choose. However, the expense and time may not be worth the effort.

Primary Offenses

If the police believe you are guilty of a primary offense, they can stop your car. Examples include speeding, running a red light, swerving between lanes, etc. Primary offense charges are the ones you typically fight in court. They come with high fines, and they can add points to your license.

There are some criminal acts that lie vaguely between a traffic offense and a criminal charge. If a cop pulls you over for reckless behavior, for example, the final charge will depend on the circumstances. It could be written as a traffic offense, or it could be charged as a misdemeanor. Perhaps a primary offense, such as swerving, leads to a greater charge, such as a DUI. If police pulled you over and then charged you with a crime, contact a lawyer immediately. It may be possible to argue that the charge has been overblown, and you should receive only a traffic offense.

Recent Virginia Reforms

In the first half of 2021, Virginia implemented a massive overhaul of its entire criminal justice system. No area remained unaffected, including traffic offenses. Much of this reform was in direct response to the protests that broke out nationwide in 2020. Many activists have long argued that police have used minor infractions as an excuse to stop and harass citizens.

As a result, many primary offenses were downgraded to secondary offenses in March of 2021. Police can no longer stop a car for exhaust problems. A window tint that is darker than the state’s regulations is now a secondary offense. Strangely, police were once allowed to pull cars over for rearview ornaments, but no longer. You can now smoke cigarettes in your car around a minor without being stopped, and if you are less than four months past your last inspection, you can drive freely.

Similarly, police no longer have the authority to search a car when they believe that they smell marijuana. Cannabis possession itself has been downgraded to a mere $25 fine. Using smell as the basis for a search would simply be overkill at this point.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you believe that you have been unjustly charged with a traffic offense, contact a lawyer. They can help evaluate your situation and advise you on how to proceed. Traffic offenses can go either way. Sometimes, it is less expensive and troublesome to just go along with them, and other times, you should absolutely fight them in court.

If you’ve been charged with a traffic offense, contact me for a free consultation. You can fill out an online contact form here, or call me at (540) 827-4446.

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