A House of Delegates committee on Tuesday killed a bill that would have eliminated a law that makes assaulting a police officer an automatic felony.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, would also have eliminated the minimum 6-month sentence for such an assault. The proposal was part of a slate of public safety reforms introduced in a special session of the General Assembly in recent weeks.
But after an impassioned discussion Tuesday, including on how the bill pertains to juveniles and the mentally ill, the House Courts of Justice Committee voted 16-1 to “pass the bill by indefinitely.”
They sent it to be studied by the Virginia Crime Commission, with the bill expected to come back in January.
Assault and battery in Virginia is generally a Class 1 misdemeanor — punishable by up to a year behind bars. But such an assault, no matter how slight, is automatically elevated to a felony — with a six-month minimum sentence — if the victim is a police officer, firefighter, judge or magistrate.
But Surovell’s bill said that when a defendant’s “culpability is slight” — such as by a mental disorder — or “if there is no bodily injury” to the officer, firefighter, judge or magistrate, the charge could be reduced to a misdemeanor at a judge or jury’s discretion.
The bill also said that another officer — not the one who alleges that he or she was assaulted — must investigate the case and bring the charges.
“This is the only crime on the books that I’m aware of where the same person is the victim, the lead investigator, the lead witness, and the charging police officer,” Surovell told the committee. More serious felony charges — to include malicious wounding — could still be brought when an officer is more seriously injured or wounded.
The bill’s supporters contended that the current law — automatically charging felonies for any assault on an officer — is unfair, causing people to be hit with felonies even for minor cases.
“You see this charge overused and from my perspective, often abused in order to leverage a situation,” he said.
Virginia State Police data, he said, show that about 1,900 police officers are assaulted each year. There’s no injury to the officer in 70% of those cases, he said. The injuries are minor in 25% of those cases, while 5% involve serious injuries.
In one case, Surovell said, a mentally ill woman in Roanoke was charged with a felony for throwing an onion ring at an officer.
Actually, he said, “the onion ring flew out of a container and hit the police officer” as he sought to arrest her.
Surovell also cited school resource officers getting pushed or shoved while arresting juveniles who are fighting with each other in school — with those minors then ending up with felonies.
The bill’s opponents, on the other hand, say that doing away with the special provisions protecting police would make it harder for officers to do their jobs.
Wayne Huggins, of the Virginia State Police, told the committee that “just because there is no bodily injury (on an officer) does not mean that it was not attempted.”
“Through our defense and defensive tactics training, if we are able to, say, block a punch, somebody throws a punch at us, or somebody swings an object at us, and we were able to block it and not get injured,” that person should face the same charge “as the person who does connect with a punch or a blunt force object.”
“That’s one part of this bill that concerns us very much,” he said. “That there’s this need for a bodily injury” before a felony charge is required.
Del. Ronnie Campbell, R-Raphine, agreed. “It troubles me that a police officer with good defensive tactics can protect himself and have someone jump on him and try to fight him,” he said.
Because the officer wasn’t more seriously injured, “that person can be charged with a misdemeanor and never spent a day in jail,” he said. “So I’m concerned about this. ... I just think it’s bad for law enforcement. And it sends the wrong message to the public.”
After a lengthy discussion on how the bill applies to juveniles and those with mental disabilities, Del. Jeffrey M. Bourne, D-Richmond, made a motion to have the State Crime Commission look into the issue further.
“This lends itself to a more thorough and lengthy discussion and debate so that we get the words right,” he said.
“Standards matter when we’re talking about these very weighty issues,” he said. “And so rather than trying to do something which I wholeheartedly support, especially addressing juveniles, a measure like this needs to be done right. We need to get it right.”
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, firstname.lastname@example.org
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