Va. Senate committee kills bill to ban police-free ‘CHOP’ zones

Virginia State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, right, records a vote during the reconvene session to order at the Science Museum of Virginia Wednesday April 22, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The Senate is meeting in a remote location due to COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. (AP Photo/POOL/Steve Helber)

A Republican-sponsored bill to ban Seattle-style police-free zones failed Wednesday in a Virginia Senate committee after one Democrat called it “the most useless piece of legislation I’ve ever seen.”

Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, the legislation’s sponsor, acknowledged the bill had little real-world effect because it included no penalties for local officials who allow police-free areas like Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHOP.

After his bill failed 5-8, Staney jokingly vowed revenge.

“I’ll bring some T-shirts for our committee that say ‘Virginia is for CHOP zones,'” he said.

Seattle’s CHOP area was created by protesters as part of the nationwide backlash to the police killing of George Floyd. City officials tolerated the protest zone for weeks, but police cleared the area in early July after a string of shootings, one of which killed a 16-year-old and another that killed a 19-year-old.

Though Richmond has seen several nights of destructive marches and lengthy protests at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, there has been nothing equivalent to CHOP established in Virginia, though Richmond protesters did attempt to establish a “Reclamation Square” outside of City Hall.

It was Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, who called the legislation useless, saying it was purely political.

“Isn’t that why we have democracies?,” Edwards said. “To elect people who have good sense?”

As originally drafted, Stanley’s bill would have created legal liability for local governments that allow police-free zones, allowing lawsuits over any property damage, injuries or deaths. He amended the bill to make it a simple state prohibition on police-free zones.

“There are no consequences in this bill,” Stanley said. “This is an up-or-down: Do we support CHOP zones in the Commonwealth of Virginia or do we prohibit them?”

One Democrat, Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, said he saw no problem voting for it.

“That seems to me as reasonable and practical and purposeful as breathing oxygen. Why wouldn’t we do that?” Morrissey said before voting with four Republicans in favor of the bill.

Defense attorney Steve Benjamin, who serves as special counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned the bill was so broad it could “substantially limit the discretion of a police chief.” For example, he said, if an officer had a search warrant for a property that higher-ups for some reason did not want to execute, he said, the legislation could prevent them from giving that order.

“They know their job,” Benjamin said. “And we do not.”

Stanley insisted his bill was not intended to impede law enforcement, but to prevent local politicians from instructing police to stay out of a particular area.

Other lawmakers didn’t seem to give the idea serious consideration.

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, asked if localities would have to get the state’s permission to allow CHOP zones due to the Dillon Rule, which limits the authority of local governments.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, asked how the law might apply in his own home.

“If my teenage daughter locks me out of her room,” Petersen said, “does that qualify?”