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Lawmakers Move to Defelonize Assaults on Police

State capitol building
On August 18, Virginia lawmakers will convene for a special session to discus criminal justice reforms and budget changes from COVID-19 impacts. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia Democrats have a list of 28 proposed changes to state law they’d like to make when they reconvene for a special session on criminal justice reform next month. 

That list includes reducing the charge for assaulting a law enforcement officer from a felony to a misdemeanor. 

State law currently says anyone who is convicted of assaulting a law enforcement officer is guilty of a Class 6 felony, which comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of six months in jail. 

But Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) says not all assaults are created equal. During a press call with the group Virginia Progressive Prosecutors for Justice this week, he provided as an example the case of a Northern Virginia woman who was charged with felony assault for launching an onion ring at a police officer. 

“Nobody would ever think that an onion ring would get you a felony charge with a six-month mandatory minimum sentence,” he said. “But that's the law in Virginia. Has been since 1997. And these mandatory minimums are exactly what the problem is.”

Surovell said the majority of the charges that are brought in these circumstances do not involve any type of injury to law enforcement officers.

“And just so we're clear, nobody is talking about getting rid of malicious prosecution for somebody that causes a serious injury to a law enforcement officer. That is the law, will always be the law, and that felony will always be available [if] an officer suffers a serious injury.”

According to state police data, one law enforcement officer was killed in the line of duty in 2019 and nearly 2000 were assaulted. The vast majority of those assaults did not result in a significant injury to the officer. More than 500 incidents did result in injuries, both minor and serious.  

Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor said during the call Monday that out of 177 charges of felony assault on police officers since 2017, about 75 percent were resolved as misdemeanors.

Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales said the existing law amounts to unequal justice for law enforcement, because many assaults that occur between civilians are often not taken seriously. 

“Nothing is going to happen in terms of safety, if we make this change,” she said. “The only thing that will happen is that our community members can begin to trust us a little more to make sure that they're living in the same existence that other people who have power and position have.”

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police opposes the change. The group did not respond to requests for comment by deadline. 

The session is scheduled to begin August 18.