Every year, in January and February, Virginia’s General Assembly meets to debate and enact changes to the Code of Virginia. Any bills that are passed and signed by the governor go into effect on July 1, making that date an exciting one for the lawyers of the Commonwealth. In just a couple of weeks, a litany of new laws take effect. In this article, I’ll provide a synopsis of a handful that citizens should know about.
Revenge “deep fakes:”
A new phenomenon is the “deep fake:” electronically grafting a person’s likeness into a photo or video to create a false appearance that the person was engaged in certain activity. Current law makes “revenge porn” a crime for actual images. A bill sponsored by Alexandria’s State Sen. Adam Ebbin bans “deep fake” revenge porn as well, an important addition in an era of easy manipulation of images.
A new felony has been created for animal cruelty that results in “serious physical injury” to an animal. Currently, cruelty that results in death is a felony, but all other offenses are misdemeanors. This is a needed new protection for animals.
Omnibus fingerprint bill:
A recent review of Virginia’s criminal records database revealed that hundreds of thousands of criminal convictions, including more than 300 murder and 1,300 rapes, had not been entered. This is a tremendous problem in that violent offenders who should be prohibited from purchasing firearms may be able to. This lengthy bill amends a host of code sections to ensure that the necessary records are entered into the database.
The law regarding cigarettes, electronic cigarettes and nicotine vapor products has changed. Citizens under the age of 21 will no longer be permitted to possess these items. Current law sets the age at 18. An exemption for active-duty military members between 18 and 21 is provided.
As life-expectancy continues to grow, so, unfortunately, does the prevalence of elder abuse. The Assembly has been slowly adding provisions to the code to address this malady. This year, it has altered two code sections to clarify that banking institutions may refuse to process bank transactions when they believe it involved financial exploitation of an aged or incapacitated adult.
Cellphones on the highway:
Current law allows drivers to hold a cellphone in their hand while driving, so long as they don’t read or write emails or text messages. A slight change will now prohibit holding a phone while driving in a delineated highway work zone. Violators will face a mandatory penalty of $250.
If a person is pardoned of a crime by the governor or is found to be innocent of a charge after having been convicted, current law requires the person to affirmatively file a petition of expungement before having the charge removed from their permanent record. A new provision will make expungement automatic upon the entry of a pardon or a finding of innocence, thereby significantly expediting the process.
The assembly passed a flurry of legislation designed to address the specter of school shootings that plagues the nation. One new law requires local school boards to include first responders in their district’s school emergency response plan. Another requires school boards to develop school emergency safety training and to provide it to every student and employee at least once a school year. Regrettably, reasonable firearms restrictions such as universal background checks remain an off-limits topic and no bill related to firearms made it out of committee In addition to the regular session of the assembly, the governor has called a special session to meet on July 9. The special session is tasked with considering new gun legislation and is spurred by the recent tragedy in Virginia Beach. Should any legislation be passed as a result of the session, I will discuss it in a future column.
The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.