Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Changes to Virginia law

Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Changes to Virginia law
(Courtesy photo)

Every year, in January and February, Virginia’s General Assembly meets to debate and enact changes to the Code of Virginia. Most bills passed and signed by the governor go into effect on July 1, making that date an exciting one for the lawyers of the Commonwealth.

At the beginning of this month, a litany of new laws went into effect. In this article, I’ll provide a synopsis of changes to the code that citizens should
know about.

Emergency substantial risk orders:

Following the lead of several other states, Virginia has enacted a code section allowing a judicial officer to order a person undergoing a mental health crisis to surrender any firearms in their possession.

The order cannot be issued until after the matter has been investigated by law enforcement and probable cause has been found to believe a person presents a substantial danger in the near future due to their possession of firearms. Once an emergency order has been issued, the circuit court may conduct a hearing and extend the order for up to six months upon clear and convincing evidence.

Criminal discovery:

Although technically a rule of the Supreme Court as opposed to a new law, a new criminal discovery regime went into effect on July 1. Criminal discovery is the process by which the prosecution and the defense share information about a criminal case prior to trial.

Prior to this new rule going into effect, Virginia imposed little in the way of discovery obligations on the prosecution. I am proud my office has always been extremely open with discovery and even more proud to have been a member of the task force convened by the Virginia Bar that formulated the new rule.

While this is perhaps an arcane change to those outside the legal profession, I sincerely believe it is one of the more important criminal justice reforms to have been enacted in recent years.

Other firearms laws:

The assembly passed a slew of gun-related bills, for example banning bump stocks and expanding the requirement that a background check be conducted prior to any sale of a firearm, though private transfers, such as trades, loans or gifts do not fall under the aegis of this law.

Handgun purchases were limited to one a month and a new requirement requiring a gun owner to report a lost or stolen firearm to law enforcement was enacted.

Marijuana decriminalization:

Possession of marijuana for personal use is no longer a criminal offense. The assembly amended the law to make marijuana possession a civil violation punishable by a fine of no more than $25. Alexandria’s own Delegate Charniele Herring and Senator Adam Ebbin sponsored the House and Senate versions of this bill, respectively.

Larceny threshold:

The threshold value necessary to convert a larceny into a felony offense was raised from $500 to $1,000.

Law enforcement interrogations:

Two new laws went into effect regarding custodial interrogations:

1) Police must alert the parent or guardian of a minor prior to a custodial interrogation and allow them contact with the minor, and

2) Police are now required to record all custodial interrogations that occur at the police station or the jail. Citizens should know that Alexandria detectives have been videotaping custodial interrogations for more than a decade.

Traffic law:

Several important changes to traffic laws went into effect. For several years, I have worked with a local nonprofit, Alexandria Families for Safe Streets, to effect changes to Virginia’s traffic laws. This year, we had some success.

A new law requires drivers to come to a complete stop when yielding to pedestrians in certain situations. A careless or distracted driver who causes serious physical injury to a pedestrian or biker is subject to more serious potential penalties.

Additionally, beginning Jan. 1, 2021 it will be illegal for a driver to hold a handheld personal communication device while their vehicle is in motion.

In addition to the regular session of the assembly, Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) has scheduled a special session to convene in August. The special session is tasked with considering a host of law enforcement and criminal justice reform measures. I will address the results of this upcoming session in a future column.

The writer is Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.