By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Several new laws passed during the Virginia General Assembly’s 2020 session went into effect on July 1.
This is the first time in several years that there has been a Democratic majority in both the Virginia State Senate and House of Delegates. The shift contributed to the passage of several bills that the City of Alexandria has unsuccessfully supported in past years.
“The changes in the legislature leading up to this past session really changed the environment there,” Sarah Taylor, Alexandria’s legislative director, said. “It was really a leap in the number of issues that the city had perennially supported that all of a sudden were doable in this new general assembly environment.”
Some new laws have already sparked a buzz in the community, including bills that allow localities to remove war memorials and regulate firearms in public spaces. With these new capabilities, the City of Alexandria has already banned firearms and ammunition on city property and helped facilitate the removal of Appomattox, a Confederate war memorial, from the intersection of Washington and Prince streets.
There are several other laws now in effect that will impact Alexandria residents.
In addition to the bill regarding firearms in public spaces, several other gun reform bills were passed during the 2020 session.
Under the new laws, background checks are required on all firearm sales in Virginia, including sales at gun shows; Virginians can purchase only one handgun per month; gun owners are required to report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement within 48 hours; and the penalty is increased for recklessly leaving firearms in the presence of children.
In addition, the assembly voted to establish an Extreme Risk Protective Order, which creates a legal mechanism for law enforcement to temporarily prohibit someone from possessing a firearm if they are deemed to present a danger to themselves or others.
“Basically, if someone is in a situation where they know a loved one or a friend is in a mental health crisis, and they believe they have access to firearms, they call the law enforcement agency,” Bryan Porter, Alexandria’s commonwealth’s attorney, said. “Law enforcement can intervene and get firearms out of the hands of someone suffering a mental health crisis to prevent a tragedy.”
The law enforcement agency would conduct an investigation, and if the magistrate finds probable cause to issue the risk order, the person will be temporarily prohibited from possessing a firearm for 14 days. At the end of the 14 days, there is a process by which the government can make the prohibition permanent for up to six months.
As of July 1, simple marijuana possession in the Commonwealth of Virginia is no longer a criminal offense.
Possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana will now result in a civil penalty of no more than $25. Under the former law, those charged with simple possession faced a fine of up to $500 and up to 30 days in jail.
“That does not mean that marijuana is now legal to possess in Virginia,” Porter said. “But what it does mean is that if you possess it and are caught with it, it is no longer a criminal offense. It does not result in a criminal record and either arrest or conviction.”
The new law could help prevent people from facing barriers because they have simple marijuana charges on their records.
“Even if someone is found culpable of possessing marijuana, it’s not a criminal record, and if it’s not a criminal record, then they can truthfully answer that they’ve never been convicted of a crime,” Porter said. “Hopefully, that would remove barriers to employment, education and residence that have sometimes been associated with criminal convictions for marijuana possession.”
Porter said the state legislature is currently studying whether marijuana legalization is a good idea. Legalization is likely a conversation that will come up in a future session, he said.
Several laws involving pedestrian and road safety were passed in the 2020 session.
Drivers are now required to stop, not just yield, to pedestrians crossing the road in marked and unmarked crosswalks. This includes any intersection where the speed limit is no more than 35 miles per hour. Drivers can proceed once the pedestrian passes their lane.
In addition, the general assembly passed a bill that increases penalties for offenses against vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and bicyclists. Essentially, drivers who are operating their vehicle in a careless or distracted manner and cause serious injury to a pedestrian or bicyclist are subject to a class one misdemeanor.
“Vulnerable road user, in our eyes, the major benefit of that, it actually puts some consequences to drivers who are driving dangerously and crash into people,” Mike Doyle, founding member of Alexandria Families for Safe Streets, said. “Up until these laws … if a driver seriously injured or killed somebody, the law was that the driver had to be reckless.”
The new law opens up the language to penalize not only those driving recklessly, which is often determined by speed, but those driving carelessly or distractedly.
Another traffic law that was passed in the 2020 session but doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2021, is the hands-free rule. As of Jan. 1, drivers could face a fine of up to $250 for driving while holding a cellphone.
Gov. Ralph Northam (DVA) signed more than 1,200 bills into law following the 2020 general assembly session. For more information on the new laws, go to https://lis.virginia.gov/.
In addition, Northam called to convene a general assembly special session in August 2020 to discuss budget changes that were made as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and issues related to criminal justice reform, policing reform and social equity, according to Taylor.