Democratic and Republican legislators on the House Courts of Justice Committee killed legislation on Tuesday that would have eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for assaulting a law enforcement officer.
Senate Bill 5032, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax County) was passed by indefinitely (PBI) by a vote of 18-Y 1-N 1-A, ending any chance of being signed into law during the 2020 special session.
The bill eliminated the six-month mandatory minimum sentence for assaulting a law enforcement officer but does not the felony charge. It also gives a judge or jury discretion to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor if there was no bodily injury to the officer, or if someone’s culpability was slight because of diminished physical or mental capacity or a developmental disorder.
Surovell argued to the committee that the charge is overused because the police officer who was assaulted is not only the victim but also the lead investigator and primary witness in the case.
Although the legislation was passed by the Senate last month with unanimous approval from Democrats, almost every Democrat voted PBI after concerns were raised over specific language and definitions within the bill.
“I talked with a lot of the members before the meeting, I know a lot of them support the bill,” Surovell said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “I think they just want to see the words cleaned up a little bit.”
The primary concern that formed among committee Democrats was first raised by Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond City) relating to the bill’s language on potential misdemeanor charges when a person’s culpability is slight because of a developmental disorder.
Specifically, whether or not Surovell’s legislation would create a worse result for people with autism charged criminally than what is currently written under Virginia law, which says that a court can dismiss or defer a criminal case where the defendant has been diagnosed with autism or a different disorder and the court finds clear evidence that the criminal activity was caused by the person’s disability.
Another concern, which was brought up by Bourne and Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington), was that the legislation did not include special provisions to address children.
“The language was not applicable to juveniles and I think even the patron admitted that is something they could work on, he had not thought of it,” Hope told The Star.
Democrats supported the bill in general, including Bourne and Hope, but because of those two main concerns they did not think it was ready to be moved to another committee or considered on the House floor.
Only three Democratic committee members spoke on the bill, but 11 out of 13 Democrats voted for passing by indefinitely while Hope voted against the motion.
Del. Mark Levine (D-Arlington) told The Star he did not want to officially kill the bill, which he considered as important and necessary, but could not ignore the concerns of his colleagues so he abstained.
Republican delegates also issued their own complaints over the bill during the committee meeting.
Del. Rob Bell (R-Albemarle County) voiced a concern that someone could cause bodily injury to a law enforcement officer and still be charged with a misdemeanor because there is no legal definition of diminished physical or mental capacity, while Del. Ronnie Campbell (R-Lexington) thought the bill sends the wrong message to the public.
“I’m concerned that this bill in itself will basically declare open season on police officers,” Campbell said.
Despite the death of the legislation, Surovell said he was confident a revised version of the bill will be considered again in either the 2021 or 2022 regular sessions of the General Assembly.
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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Police Arresting Someone” by The U.S. Marshall Public Affairs Office. CC BY 2.0.