Governor signs set of policing reforms into law in Virginia

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No-knock search warrants will be prohibited, chokeholds will be heavily restricted and other police reforms will be enacted in Virginia after Gov. Ralph Northam signed several bills into law Wednesday.

“Too many families, in Virginia and across our nation, live in fear of being hurt or killed by police,” Northam said in a statement. “These new laws represent a tremendous step forward in rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. I am grateful to the legislators and advocates who have worked so hard to make this change happen. Virginia is better, more just, and more equitable with these laws on our books.”

The governor signed Senate Bill 5030, which was an omnibus police reform bill that incorporated several reforms. He also signed several corresponding House bills that included the same language and proposed amendments to others to conform to language in the Senate version. The omnibus bill is effective July 1, 2021.

Police will be required to clearly and audibly identify themselves and their authority before entering a premises to execute a search warrant in all cases. Officers also will be required to wear clearly recognizable uniforms so they can be identified as law enforcement. Under previous law, officers were able to seek approval from a judge to enter homes unannounced and disguised, which is called a no-knock warrant.

Supporters of the reform, which included mostly Democrats and civil liberties groups, said the legislation will protect suspects and officers from potential harm that could come if a suspect believes his house is being broken into when police are conducting a search warrant. The legislation’s opposition, which mostly came from Republicans and police groups, said no-knock warrant are used rarely, but the element of surprise could protect officers in certain instances.

Officers also will be required to provide the owner with a copy of the search warrant or give it to another occupant if the owner is not present. If there is no one present, the officer will be required to leave a copy of the warrant in an easily located area on the premises.

Search warrants will have to be executed during the day unless a judge approves a nighttime or early morning search. If no judge is available, police will be allowed to receive the authorization from a magistrate. The daytime provision will not apply to search warrants for the withdrawal of blood.

These reforms will only apply to search warrants and not other types of warrants, such as arrest warrants or other police activity.

Heavy restrictions for chokeholds and other neck restraints will also be enacted via the legislation. An officer will be prohibited from using these restraints unless it is necessary to protect the life of the officer or another person. These restraints include the use of any body part or object being applied to the neck with the purpose, intent or effect of controlling the person’s movement or restricting the person’s blood flow or breathing. This reform received some bipartisan support.

The legislation also directs the Criminal Justice Services Board to adopt a statewide professional standards of conduct for all law-enforcement officers. It expands the state’s decertification process to include serious misconduct as defined by the standards established by the board. This reform received bipartisan support and support from law enforcement groups. Current law allows decertification for only a small list of offenses.

The legislation also directs the Department of Criminal Justice Services to establish statewide training standards that includes de-escalation techniques, the proper use of force, awareness about racially biased policing and how to handle people with mental illness. Most of these reforms generally received bipartisan support and law enforcement support.

Police departments also will be prohibited from purchasing certain military surplus weapons unless they receive a waiver from the Department of Criminal Justice Services. The prohibited weapons include grenade launchers, weaponized drones, bayonets and firearms or ammunition for .50 caliber guns or higher. The list will not include Humvees, which police sometimes use for search and rescue operations. This reform received support from civil liberties groups, but opposition from some police groups.

The legislation also will make officers subject to a Class 6 felony if they have sex with a person in custody. This received wide bipartisan support and support from law enforcement.

Northam also signed legislation that expands parole eligibility for terminally ill inmates.

The governor proposed an amendment to legislation that expands the use of earned sentencing credits, which allow inmates to be released early from jail. His amendment would delay the enactment by six months to provide additional time for the Department of Corrections to implement the program.

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