RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Senate passed a measure Wednesday that gives judges and juries the discretion to reduce the charge for assaulting law enforcement officers from a felony to a misdemeanor if the officer is not hurt during the encounter.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for assault and battery charges against police, judges, magistrates, correctional officers and firefighters. Democrats argued that the felony, which carries a minimum six-month sentence, is too harsh of a penalty as it is frequently used in encounters that are inconsequential.
While the charge remains to be a felony, the measure gives a judge or jury the power to reduce it to a misdemeanor if the incident did not result in a bodily injury.
Republicans claimed that the law would make it more difficult for officers to do their jobs and for departments to find new recruits. GOP senators called for the bill to be taken up during next year’s session.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) suggested that lawmakers “gently carry” the legislation to the 2021 General Assembly session, a call that Democrats dismissed as an attempt to kick it down the road.
Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton) argued that nothing was wrong with the legislation as it stood and waiting was not an option, saying that lawmakers should pass the measure to show people who have been protesting for racial justice and criminal justice reform that they are listening to them.
“Now is not the time for never, we’re dealing with now,” Locke said.
Surovell said that in most instances, the charges come as a result of an arrest that “becomes unnecessarily aggressive.” He added that research shows that mandatory minimums do not deter people from committing crimes.
Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), who is running for Virginia governor next year, said that she has grave concerns over the message being sent, calling the bill “an attack on our law enforcement.”
The bill will now head to the House of Delegates, where Democrats hold a 10-seat majority.