Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Changes to Virginia’s criminal code

Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: Changes to Virginia’s criminal code
Bryan Porter in his office at the Alexandria Courthouse. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

In the 2022 session, the Virginia General Assembly passed a number of bills which would affect changes to the criminal code. As I do every year, I will highlight a few of the bills that are likely to have a significant impact. By no means is my list designed to be comprehensive. Unless noted otherwise, all changes to the code go into effect on July 1, 2022.

Venue in stalking cases: Alexandria’s newest delegate, Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, served as the patron of a bill which amended the venue statute for stalking cases. A criminal case may only be brought in the appropriate venue. For instance, a robbery that occurred in Virginia Beach cannot be charged and prosecuted in Alexandria. Questions of venue, however, can be trickier when conduct that occurs outside of Virginia impacts citizens inside of the Commonwealth.

An Alexandria constituent contacted the delegate to point out a hole in the current stalking venue statute, which requires the stalking conduct to “occur … within the Commonwealth.” This, however, makes it impossible to charge or prosecute someone who resides outside of Virginia, but engages in stalking behavior through the mail or through electronic communications. While some stalking behavior might violate currently extant code sections barring written threats, in my experience, not all stalking behavior can be classified as a threat, and in some situations, the current venue requirements could act as a bar to prosecution.

Delegate Bennett-Parker’s bill addresses the problem by eliminating the phrase “within the Commonwealth” and adding a provision that establishes venue in the jurisdiction in which the victim resides. This is a small but important change and will allow law enforcement to investigate and charge a wider range of stalking behavior.

Animal sexual abuse: The Assembly acted to clamp down on sexual abuse against animals, expanding current provisions of the code to make it a felony to have any sexual contact with an animal or to produce, publish or possess images thereof.

Catalytic converter theft: Catalytic converters are devices in a car’s exhaust system which convert toxic pollutants in the exhaust gasses into less harmful substances. They contain precious metals and can fetch exorbitant prices on the black market. Recent years have seen a huge uptick in converter thefts statewide, and now tampering with an automobile for purposes of stealing a converter is a felony offense.

Facial recognition technology: A bill that would allow law enforcement to utilize facial recognition technology in limited circumstances is still awaiting final action. The bill would allow F.R. for purposes such as identifying a crime victim or a missing person and would specifically prohibit its use as a surveillance tool. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed small changes to the bill that passed both houses, and it seems likely the bill will go into effect in July.

Marijuana: The regulatory regime for the possession and sale of marijuana remains murky. The regulatory framework for the legal commercial sale of marijuana remains in flux and was not decided by this Assembly. Given the complexity of the issues regarding commercial sales, the Assembly will attempt to tackle them in a future session and no dispensaries will be operating in the near future. Adults may possess up to an ounce of marijuana legally. Simple possession of over an ounce but less than a pound is currently punishable by a civil penalty; however, Youngkin has proposed increasing the penalty to a criminal misdemeanor, a proposal the Assembly will consider in an upcoming special session. I encourage citizens to go online and read the specific texts associated with these bills. The text of all bills may be found at: lis.virginia.gov.

The writer is commonwealth’s attorney for Alexandria.