In the wake of sprawling civil rights protests throughout the country last year, legislatures across the United States began taking a closer look at their respective criminal codes. Virginia was no exception. Lawmakers passed sweeping reforms that will soon impact every level of the criminal justice system in the Commonwealth. From minor traffic infractions to the ultimate penalty, 2021 marks a watershed year for the Old Dominion.
Some highlights include:
Effective March 1, police can no longer execute warrants without first knocking and announcing themselves. Called “Breonna’s Law” after 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed during a police raid in Louisville last year, the legislation makes Virginia just the third state to adopt a prohibition on so-called “no-knock warrants.” While civil rights leaders have praised the move, some in the law enforcement community have raised concerns that execution of no-knock warrants may be necessary to protect officers and recover evidence before it can be disposed of.
Also effective March 1, police can no longer initiate traffic stops for a variety of minor infractions. This law is aimed at curbing pretextual stops, where the officer is more interested in investigating the person or persons in the car rather than the offense that led to the stop. Examples include tinted windows, broken or loud exhaust systems or a state inspection that is less than four months expired. These have all been reclassified as secondary offenses.
While there is a long list of additional changes, the two that have gotten the most publicity are the decriminalization of marijuana and the elimination of the death penalty. Social justice advocacy groups have long held that these areas of law disproportionately affect minorities and, based on statistics, that is accurate. According to a 2020 study by the ACLU, black people are almost four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as white people, despite comparable rates of use. With regard to capital punishment, the Death Penalty Information Center also issued a report in 2020 that details how the modern death penalty can be viewed as a direct descendent of slavery and Jim Crow-era segregation practices.
Virginia’s move against the death penalty makes it the first southern state to abolish the practice, an extraordinary change for a state that was known for its prolific use over that past 400 years. Not only did it carry out the colonies’ first recorded execution in 1608, it also has since ended the lives of nearly 1,400 convicted criminals, more than any other state. While there is expectation that this may lead to further abolition of the death penalty across the South, states such as South Carolina have decided to go in a different direction. Not only has the Palmetto State reinforced its commitment to the death penalty as a viable deterrent, its legislature also recently announced plans to bring back the firing squad as a lawful method of execution.
Virginia’s decision echoes concerns that many defense attorneys have regarding the finality of execution. While our legal system is largely a good one, it is ultimately composed of individuals capable of making mistakes. Often these mistakes can be remedied months or even years after the fact through additional hearings, appeals, etc. Not so, once a mistake results in the use of capital punishment. In May, news broke out of Arkansas that new genetic evidence was recently discovered on a murder weapon, potentially incriminating someone other than the man convicted of the crime. While this is usually reason for an inmate, his family and attorneys to celebrate, that was impossible in this case since this particular man was executed in 2017.
While each of these changes in Virginia’s laws will continue to be met with both praise and controversy, there is no question that legislators on both sides of the aisle are taking a hard look at how we treat people who enter the justice system. This is important because, just as we expect accountability from all other facets of government, so too should we expect it from our police, judges, prosecutors and juries, especially since these positions are filled by our neighbors, friends and even family members. In the end, demanding greater accountability from our criminal justice system really means demanding greater accountability from ourselves.