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Clarifying right-of-way for funeral processions in Va.

Wednesday - 6/25/2014, 9:09pm  ET

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Heather Spinner snapped a photo of her brother-in-law being pulled over on June 12 just past the intersection of Duke Street and S. Walker Street in Alexandria, Va. (Courtesy Heather Spinner)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Whether a funeral procession has the right of way depends on its escort in Virginia, but if drivers try to look up the law themselves, they'll run into a lot of gray areas.

After WTOP broke the story of a man pulled over in a funeral procession in Alexandria, listeners contacted us asking for more information about when a funeral procession has the right of way in Virginia.

Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney Bryan Porter provided his interpretation of the law: "My reading of the law is that if you want to disobey or be immune from traffic devices or other rules of the road like the right of way, you've got to have a police escort," Porter says.

A few listeners sent us an excerpt of the Virginia Driver's Manual which advises drivers on what to do in a funeral procession.

"You must yield to funeral processions. Do not cut through, join or interfere with a funeral procession. Unless led by a police escort, the lead vehicle in a funeral procession must obey all traffic signs and signal. Other drivers in the procession may follow carefully without stopping and may use hazard lights (flashers) to indicate they are in the procession."

The language is confusing but left us wondering if police are subject to the directive not to 'interfere' with a funeral procession. Porter says no.

"A police officer initiating a traffic stop, from my experience, in my estimation, that's not disrupting the funeral procession. It's just simply enforcing the law," he says.

State law takes precedence over the driver's manual, Porter says, which he agrees is confusing.

The manual says drivers cannot disrupt a procession, and the lead car must follow the rules of the road. while Va. code 46.2-828 says a procession needs a police escort for the procession to have the right of way.

R.G. Spinner was pulled over for running a red light on the way to his great-grandmother's burial. A pallbearer in the ceremony, the time spent with an Alexandria police officer who issued Spinner a court summons for the violation caused him to miss the burial, family says.

Looking into the law as to why Spinner did not have the right of way and broke the law, as both Alexandria and Fairfax County police confirmed, we found the state code lacking in clarity.

It specifies that processions have the right of way under police escort but not otherwise.

"Funeral processions traveling under police or sheriff's escort shall have the right-of-way in any highway through which they may pass. Localities may, by ordinance, provide for such escort service and provide for the imposition of reasonable fees to defray the cost of such service."

So what's the point of a marked funeral procession with headlights and hazard lights on? Essentially, protection from other drivers cutting in.

"Basically, they're supposed to respect the funeral procession even if you don't have an escort from the police. I don't know if it's that great of a benefit, but at least it's a little bit of a benefit," Porter says.

Police say it's the responsibility of the funeral home to instruct families on the law regarding the procession to the cemetery. But most police departments offer and designate officers for availability to escort a funeral procession, often at no cost.

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