By Bryan Porter
In the 2023 session, the Virginia General Assembly passed a number of bills which would affect changes to the criminal code. In this article I will highlight a few of the bills that
are likely to have a noticeable impact. By no means is my list designed to be comprehensive, as literally dozens of changes were made by the Assembly, many of them small procedural fixes. Unless noted otherwise, all changes to the code went into effect on July 1, 2023.
Organized Retail Theft
As the Times recently reported, organized retail theft remains an ongoing problem around the Commonwealth. The legislature created a new criminal felony offense in response to the issue, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The new organized retail theft section requires proof that the person charged acted in concert with another person to commit larceny from a retail store and stole more than $5000 aggregated over a 90-day period with the intent to sell the stolen property for monetary or other gain.
Another pressing public safety issue is the distribution of fentanyl. The Assembly passed a bill including any substance containing a detectable amount of fentanyl in the definition of the term “weapon of terrorism” as that term is already defined in the Code. Any person who knowingly manufactures or distributes a sub- stance containing fentanyl for profit is now guilty of distributing a weapon of terrorism, punishable as a felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
The threat to release intimate photos or videos for the purpose of extorting sexual favors has unfortunately proliferated in the era of social media. Unfortunately, such actions did not violate the current criminal code, which requires a financial motive to establish extortion. The Assembly remedied the situation by enacting the Sexual Extortion section, which makes it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison to threaten to release or publish intimate photos or videos for the purposes of extorting sexual favors.
As is often the case, the Code falls behind the progress of technology. Two new code sections address the proliferation of drones. The first makes it illegal to fly a drone for the purposes of secretively peeping or spying into a dwelling. The second prohibits flying drones over any jail or prison for the purposes of dropping any item or photographing or videotaping of inmates. As people devise more unlawful methods for using drones, expect more code sections addressing the problem.
In 2021, an unfortunate event occurred in Giles County. A deranged woman abducted a toddler from a church day care program, intending to raise him as her own child. Luckily, law enforcement quickly made an arrest and returned the child unharmed to his parents. But the Commonwealth’s Attorney, Bobby Lilly, soon learned the maximum penalty for this crime was only 10 years, exactly half the maximum penalty for grand larceny.
This situation caused Lilly to act in concert with the victim’s family. Through perseverance, they persuaded the Assembly to enact a significant change. The new maximum penalty for non-parental abduction for any illegal purpose is life in prison.
Another new crime, engendered by technology is “swatting.” Named for police special response “SWAT” teams, the crime consists of using an internet connection to mask one’s identity and location when calling 911 to report a violent offense. The aim is to punish an enemy by falsely causing the police to respond to the enemy’s home with tactical teams and a show of force. Obviously, such a situation is more than a nuisance and can end in tragedy. A new code section more directly addresses this situation, creating a misdemeanor for simply falsely summoning an emergency response and a more serious felony offense if the emergency response results in serious bodily injury or death.
All of these changes went into effect on July 1, 2023. As always. I encourage citizens to go online and read each of these bills. The text of all bills may be found at lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604. exe?231+men+BIL