Our View: It’s time to change the law

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Former police officer Peter Laboy is carried into a helicopter after being shot the head by Kashif Bashir while on duty in 2013. An Alexandria circuit court judge ruled on June 7 that Bashir must be released from the mental hospital where he has been residing. (File Photo)
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The monthly column by Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter has been a terrific addition to the Times’ opinion pages. Porter has helped us understand distinctions between legal terms, as in this week’s column, and provided an interesting window into how a prosecutor’s office operates.

Two recent legal outcomes make it clear that, while better understanding of state and federal code is important, sometimes laws simply need changing.

Last week, many in Alexandria were horrified to learn that Kashif Bashir, who shot Alexandria Police Officer Peter Laboy in the head at point blank range in 2013, was being released from the mental hospital where he had been treated since being declared not guilty by reason of insanity in 2014.

While he miraculously survived the ruthless, unprovoked attack, five years later Laboy has lost his career and his marriage broke under the strain. The former officer told the Times: “He shot me. I’m very lucky that I’m still here, but I’m suffering more than he is. I’m still going to the hospital two times a week. It’s not right that they gave him medication and said he’s good now and he’s out there.”

It’s difficult to disagree with Laboy. As Porter explained in the June 14 Times story, “Alexandria officer’s shooter released,” this result is a direct consequence of Virginia state law, which only allows for verdicts of “guilty” or “not guilty by reason of insanity” in cases like this.

Porter said about 20 other states have a third option, “guilty but mentally ill,” that would enable someone like Bashir to be kept behind bars. While basic humanity moves us to protect those who have no idea what they are doing, Porter said Bashir was aware of his actions because he, first, stalked a woman with the intent of raping her, then led police on a 100-mile-per-hour car chase.

It’s time for Virginia to become the 21st state to have such a provision added to state law. Alexandria’s mayor, city council and city staff should prioritize adding this third outcome to its proposed legislative package for 2019. City residents should urge our state representatives, Delegates Mark Levine and Charniele Herring and State Sen. Adam Ebbin, to introduce legislation that changes this law.

The second disturbing legal outcome, while not a matter of life and death like the Laboy case, concerns the attempt by longtime La Bergerie owners Laurent and Margaret Janowsky to relocate their restaurant to 329 N. Washington Street and add a five-room inn to the operation. This relocation was opposed by a group of neighbors, who challenged the move in court – as is their right.

What’s not right about this scenario, however, is that it dragged on for nearly four years, as the neighbors kept appealing even after losing or being denied at each step. First, circuit court ruled against the neighbors, then Virginia’s Supreme Court twice declined to hear the appeal. But the time and legal expenses involved caused the Janowskys to this week announce they can’t move forward.

This outcome is a loss for Alexandria, as it had the chance to add an Inn at Little Washington-caliber establishment to its stable of small businesses. It is also indicative of a larger problem that enables the legal equivalent of an arms race. It’s just wrong for a plaintiff that loses in court to be able to ultimately win by having deeper pockets.

Changing this would also require legal reform – not to limit anyone’s ability to sue, which is one of the most fundamental American rights, but to make plaintiffs ultimately responsible for opponents’ legal fees if they continue to sue and lose.

The legal outcomes of the past two weeks show that understanding the law is important.
But sometimes it’s also necessary to change the code that governs us, particularly when outcomes seem like injustices.

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