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Virginia Senate Democrats consider defelonizing assault against law enforcement officers

Democrats consider defelonizing assault against law enforcement officers

 

Virginia Senate Democrats have published a list of 28 proposals for reforming the Commonwealth’s police and criminal justice systems, including a measure to downgrade the charge of assault on a law enforcement officer to a misdemeanor offense instead of a felony.

Under current law, anyone who is convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer is guilty of a Class 6 felony and is subject to a mandatory minimum term of confinement of six months, according to Virginia code.

This same penalty applies to anyone who assaults a person they know, or have reason to know, is a judge, magistrate, prison guard, firefighter or some other criminal justice administrator or first responder.

The proposal is listed as “defelonize assault on law enforcement officer (return to misdemeanor offense).” It is just one of many proposals by the Senate Democratic Caucus that could be considered at a special session on criminal justice reform legislation planned for August 2020 in Richmond.

State Sen. Scott Surovell (36th District), chair of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus’s ad hoc subcommittee on police reform and criminal justice, explained the defelonization proposed in a column published by Fort Hunt Herald on July 1: “In 1997, our legislature made assault on a law enforcement officer a felony. This means that touching a police officer without the officer’s consent can result in felony charges. I have seen people charged with this for slapping an officer’s wrist as the officer hands over a speeding ticket or bumping into an officer and walking away from a vehicle. Officers often use this charge when an officer’s misconduct could be alleged. We need to return this to a misdemeanor offense as it was for 200 years. Serious injuries can always be charged as felonies.”

In 2019, one law enforcement officer was feloniously killed in the line of duty and another 1,939 were assaulted, according to data released in May by the Virginia State Police. Of those assaults, most incidents (1,327) did not result in a significant injury to the officer, but other incidents did result in the law enforcement officer sustaining minor injuries (497), major injuries (22), broken bones (7), severe lacerations (6), and potential internal injuries (4).

Democrats consider defelonizing assault against law enforcement officers

Assaults on law enforcement officers, Virginia State Police’s Crime In Virginia 2019 Report (Credit: Virginia State Police).

The list of measures was drafted in the wake of mass protests against the killing of black people by law enforcement officers, specifically George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. However, the Senate Democratic Caucus notes that it has been working to reform the policing and criminal justice systems for years, including 16 recent Senate Bills that were passed by the chamber but not presented to the Governor.

“The deaths of Floyd, [Ahmaud] Arbery and Taylor have awoken Americans and Virginians to long-standing problems in policing in America,” the Virginia Senate Democrats stated in a press release.

“After people are arrested, additional damage is done by a criminal justice system that has been streamlined to produce convictions and punishment instead of rehabilitation and justice.”

Democrats consider defelonizing assault against law enforcement officers

The Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus’ list of proposed reforms includes:

  • Prohibit No Knock Warrants (Breonna Taylor)
  • Ban Sex With Individuals Arrested by Law Enforcement*
  • Prohibit Hiring of Officers Fired or Resigned During Use of Force Investigations
  • Create a Decertification Procedure for Law Enforcement Officers*
  • Ban chokeholds and strangleholds (George Floyd)
  • Require Attempts at De-escalation Prior to Use of Force
  • Require Warnings Before Shots Fired
  • Require Law Enforcement to Exhaust All Other Means Prior to Shooting
  • Create Duty to Intervene by Fellow Law Enforcement Officers
  • Prohibit Shooting at Moving Motor Vehicles
  • Require Departments to Create a Use of Force Continuum
  • Require Comprehensive Reporting by All Law Enforcement Agencies Including Use of Force Data
  • Defelonize Assault on Law Enforcement Officer (Return to Misdemeanor Offense)
  • Cancel HB599 Funding (Virginia supplemental funding for local police departments) After Local Police Have Disproportionate Use of Force Incidents in their Jurisdiction
  • Create Local Authority for a Marcus Alert System – System to Report Acute Mental Health Crises
  • Create Local Option for Citizen Review Board Empowered to Investigate, Fire and/or Discipline Officers
  • Confirm Prosecutors’ Authority to Drop Charges*
  • Enhance Courts’ Ability to Expunge Charges for Dismissed Charges, Substance Convictions and Pardoned Offenses*
  • Prohibit Searches of Person or Vehicle Based on Odor of Marijuana Without Probable Cause for Other Offenses*
  • Prohibit Stops for Equipment Violations Not Covered by State Vehicle Inspection
  • Secondary Offense For Dangling Objects, Extinguished Tag Light, Tinted Windows or Loud Exhaust
  • Jury Sentencing Only at Option of the Accused*
  • Eliminate Commonwealth’s Right to Demand Jury Trial When Jury Trials Suspended for State of Emergency*
  • Require Agencies to Determine Cost Savings for Introduced Criminal Justice Legislation
  • Allow Earned Sentence Credit for Good Behavior During Prison*
  • Create Discretion for Compassionate Release for Terminally Ill or Permanently Disabled Prisoners*
  • Virginia Rental Assistance Fund for Families Economically Impacted by COVID
  • Require and Reimburse Localities for Postage Prepaid Envelopes for Absentee Voting*

*Represents legislation introduced in prior sessions

Democrats consider defelonizing assault against law enforcement officers

The Senate Democrats’ measures would need to be considered and passed by the Democratic Party-controlled House of Delegates and signed by the Democrat Governor Ralph Northam to become law.

The Virginia State Police recorded 24 officer-involved shooting instances in 2019, all of which were found to be justified.

Democrats consider defelonizing assault against law enforcement officers

Officer-involved shootings in Virginia during 2019 (Credit: Virginia State Police).

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