Virginia House passes ban on police choke holds, votes down qualified immunity reform

By: - September 4, 2020 2:28 pm

House members pledge allegiance to the flag as the Virginia House of Delegates begins a special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/Pool)

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a wide-ranging package of police reform legislation Friday that would establish a blanket prohibition on choke holds and create criminal penalties for officers who fail to intervene in a colleague’s unlawful use of force.

The bills, which drew strong opposition from Republican lawmakers and in some cases go further than similar bills advancing in the Senate, mostly passed on party-line votes.

Only one of the 12 measures failed when five Democrats voted with GOP lawmakers to oppose a bill rolling back qualified immunity for police, which often shields officers from lawsuits alleging misconduct.

The barrier to civil claims has drawn growing scrutiny amid nationwide protests following the death George Floyd in Minneapolis and the Virginia legislation was endorsed by Democratic leaders in the House and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

“Really it boils down to — are we going to afford Virginians who find themselves on the business end of excessive force that ability to better and more fairly fight for some redress?” said Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who proposed the measure, which would have allowed civil suits alleging constitutional violations to proceed in state court, effectively side-stepping the federal judicial doctrine.

The proposal drew strong opposition from law enforcement groups, who argued it would result in a flurry of frivolous lawsuits and make it difficult to recruit and retain officers. A similar measure was already defeated in the Senate, where Democrats also hold a majority.

“All of us want to get rid of bad cops,” said Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach. “The problem with this bill is it is going to have the unintended consequence of hurting good cops.”

Supporters called the objections misleading, arguing the bill would simply allow more cases to get a hearing before a judge or jury and that in most cases police departments rather than individual officers would be responsible for the cost of defending the lawsuits and paying out any damages awarded.

Bu measure’s path to the House floor was turbulent, with the bill voted down in committee only to be revived the next day. Ultimately, five Democrats voted with Republicans to kill the measure: David Bulova of Fairfax, Steve Heretick of Portsmouth, Martha Mugler of Hampton, Ibraheem Samirah of Fairfax, and Shelly Simonds of Newport News. Another three Democratic lawmakers abstained, Kelly Convirs-Fowler of Virginia Beach, Cliff Hayes of Chesapeake and Kaye Kory of Fairfax.

The remainder of House Democrat’s police reform legislation advanced over objections from GOP lawmakers. The measures, which now head to the Senate, would:

  • Ban searches based on an officer’s assertion that they smell marijuana and making several minor traffic violations, such as having tinted windows, a secondary offenses;
  • Affirm the right of local commonwealths’ attorneys to dismiss charges they don’t wish to pursue without being required to explain their position to a judge;
  • Institute a blanket prohibition of no-knock search warrants and neck restraints;
  • Require police to report wrongdoing by other officers;
  • Create a misdemeanor and felony charges that could be lodged against officers who don’t intervene if they see a colleague using force unlawfully; and
  • Expand the process by which police officers can lose their state license to work in sworn law enforcement positions and create minimum standards that all police officers in the state must follow.

Republican lawmakers proposed a series of amendments they said would have made the legislation more palatable to members of their caucus. Rather than a blanket prohibition on choke holds, they called for an exception in cases where an officer’s life was at risk.

“Much of the legislation rammed through today by Democrats had the potential to be thoughtful reforms of how police do businesses,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “Sadly, the majority was so bent on punishing law enforcement that they refused to listen to reason.”

They also proposed exceptions to the ban on no-knock search warrants, arguing judges should be allowed to authorize them in certain circumstances.

“The main reason we have for what we call a no-knock warrant is so police can neutralize a potentially dangerous and violent confrontation between police and the public,” said Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Hanover. “This legislation eliminates this possibility and I believe will result in more violence, not less.”

Both amendments would have brought the legislation in line with the approach adopted by Democrats in the Senate, who amended their police reform omnibus to address concerns raised by law enforcement groups.

In the House, Democrats argued the changes were unnecessary and that the chamber shouldn’t prioritize input from law enforcement officers over the citizens they’re tasked with protecting.

“I have not come across one individual who feels comfortable knowing that someone, law enforcement included, can barge into their homes unannounced and expect that they should not react and they should not protect themselves and their families,” Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, who proposed the search warrant legislation. “And so yes, we have a responsibility to work with law enforcement, but we also have a responsibility to represent our people to the fullest extent.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.