Virginia Democrats in the state’s Senate banded together to pass a controversial bill allowing the assault of a law enforcement officer to be treated as a misdemeanor — that is, as a crime punishable by less than one year in jail.
The bill, which passed the Virginia Senate Thursday by a margin of 21-15, “would allow an assault against a law enforcement officer to a misdemeanor if the person attacked is not hurt,” according to WSLS Virginia.
Before now, any assault of a police officer in the state of Virginia carried with it a minimum six month jail sentence.
“This same penalty applies to anyone who assaults a person they know, or have reason to know, is a judge, magistrate, prison guard, firefighter or some other criminal justice administrator or first responder,” the Fort Hunt Herald added.
A summary of the bill notes that the measure:
Eliminates the mandatory minimum term of confinement for an assault and battery committed against a judge; magistrate; law-enforcement officer; correctional officer; person directly involved in the care, treatment, or supervision of inmates; firefighter; or volunteer firefighter or any emergency medical services personnel and provides that such crime can no longer be committed as a simple assault and must result in a bodily injury.
In their proposal, Virginia Democrats explained that the bill would “defelonize assault[s] on law enforcement officer (return to misdemeanor offense)” and would eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence imposed in a change to the law made in 1997.
“Democrats said the legislation does not minimize the crime of assaulting a police officer, but instead makes a distinction between serious assaults and minor assaults,” according to The Associated Press. “The bill keeps the charge as a felony, but gives a judge or jury discretion to reduce it to a misdemeanor if there is no bodily injury or if someone’s culpability is slight because of diminished capacity or a developmental disorder.”
“In 1997, our legislature made assault on a law enforcement officer a felony. This means that touching a police officer without the officer’s consent can result in felony charges,” said the chair of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus’s ad hoc subcommittee on police reform and criminal justice, per Fort Hunt Herald. “I have seen people charged with this for slapping an officer’s wrist as the officer hands over a speeding ticket or bumping into an officer and walking away from a vehicle. Officers often use this charge when an officer’s misconduct could be alleged. We need to return this to a misdemeanor offense as it was for 200 years. Serious injuries can always be charged as felonies.”
The Herald notes that 1,939 officers were assaulted in the line of duty in Virginia in 2019. Around 500 of those incidents resulted in the officer sustaining “minor injuries.” Around 40 of those incidents resulted in “major injuries” including broken bones and severe lacerations.
Now that the bill has passed, it will go to the Virginia House of Delegates (Democrat-controlled), and then to Democrat Governor Ralph Northam, who is expected to sign the measure into law.