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FCPD can again stop drivers for loud exhaust systems, under new Virginia law

Fairfax County police cruiser (via FCPD/Facebook)

A change in Virginia law will allow police to once again pull over vehicles with excessively loud exhaust systems, starting tomorrow (Friday).

At a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday (June 28), officials said the change was much needed, citing noisy cars as one of the top complaints they receive from constituents.

“This is a very annoying issue to a high percentage of my district’s residents,” Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck said. “I probably hear about this more than anything else.”

Earlier this year, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation authorizing police to pull over vehicles and issue violations for loud exhaust systems.

Virginia eased rules on exhaust noise levels after the General Assembly passed legislation sponsored by local lawmaker Del. Patrick Hope (D-47) in 2020. Hope and other advocates argued at the time that police were disproportionately pulling over drivers of color for minor infractions, like broken tail lights, tinted windows, and loud exhaust systems.

That law went into effect in March 2021.

However, the change seemed to lead to a rise in noise complaints related to loud exhaust systems in Fairfax County and neighboring jurisdictions.

So, a new bill was created, passed, and signed into law by the governor this year that specifically made exhaust systems “not in good working order and in constant operation to prevent excessive or unusual levels of noise” a primary offense, meaning police can now pull over drivers specifically for that.

Braddock District Supervisor Walkinshaw and Springfield District Supervisor Herrity said they often hear from residents about loud vehicle exhausts. Hunter Mill District Supervisor Walter Alcorn said expensive, new exhaust systems with the express purpose of making noise are popular among some in his district.

Even Hope, the sponsor of the original bill, admitted to FFXnow that the 2020 bill had “unintendend consequences,” though he did vote against this session’s legislation.

“This [legislation] was in response to the unintended consequence in the 2021 law of some motorists taking advantage of the law change and installing obnoxiously loud exhaust systems on their vehicles, disturbing families and neighbors,” he wrote. “I heard many complaints from constituents that supported the intent of the law but the unintended consequence was a disturbance of the peace.”

While many of Fairfax County’s supervisors seem to be in agreement that exhaust system noise needs to be addressed, there was some debate on exactly how it should be done.

When questioned about how police intend to enforce this, Fairfax County Police Department Second Lt. David Duffet said it would be similar to past enforcement, giving individual officers discretion for when to pull over a driver.

Herrity and Board Chairman Jeff McKay suggested the county needs a “better plan in place” than simply an ad hoc approach. Arlington County police laid out their approach last week, with a focus on education before enforcement.

Walkinshaw suggested obtaining technology that automatically measures decibel levels, which would help with the issue while not straining police staff.

McKay said he’s “disappointed” that the final bill didn’t add monitoring exhaust systems and measuring noise levels as annual vehicle inspection requirements, like emissions.

“The first way to address this issue is to prevent [these exhaust systems] from being installed in the first place, to deny someone’s inspection because they don’t have the right equipment installed on their vehicle,” he said.

At least for the moment, though, the FCPD says individual officers will enforce the new law.

“Officers will rely on their training and experience to determine if a vehicle’s exhaust system fails to prevent such excessive noise, when compared to a standard factory design on such vehicle,” FCPD wrote in a blog post published today (Thursday).

Since the prohibition on traffic stops for loud exhaust systems had only been in place for a year, the FCPD expressed confidence in an email to FFXnow that its “officers and the community are familiar with the regulations and consequences for violations.”

Hope says he’s concerned the return of enforcement could contribute to the racial disparities that his 2020 law was intended to eliminate.

“My primary concern with reverting back to the old law…is that law enforcement will use loud noise as an excuse to pull a motorist over, whether they actually heard a noise or not,” Hope said. “It’s impossible to prove a negative. Old habits are sometimes hard to break but inappropriately singling out people of color is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Of course, law enforcement doesn’t admit to doing this.”

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