(Senator Emmett Hanger (R-Augusta)

by Brandon Jarvis

After spending the better part of a year on policies that would reduce the number of altercations between members of the public and police officers, advocates were shocked when a bill that passed unanimously in the Senate failed to receive a motion to advance out of a House subcommittee.

Senator Emmett Hanger’s (R-Augusta) SB 1437 would eliminate the requirement that a defendant sign a ‘promise to appear’ when a summons for a misdemeanor offense or an administrative violation is issued. Hanger says he submitted this bill after the former sheriff from Waynesboro gave him the idea.

This legislation would cut down on confrontations when individuals are afraid to sign the summons, forcing escalation from the officer by law.

The signature does nothing more than show that you will attend the court date and confirm the mailing address listed, but Hanger said he was surprised to find out that when an individual refuses to sign a summons, they are then taken directly to the magistrate by the arresting officer. “It is relevant right now as people in a lot of situations are threatened by authority,” he said. 

After passing the Senate, the bill was sent over to the House of Delegates for consideration. It was then referred to the Court of Justice committee, with the crime subcommittee taking it up first.

After Hanger presented the legislation to the committee members, there was very little interaction other than a few questions. 

Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) expressed concern over the risk of defendants not receiving proper notice of their court date leading to additional charges for the individual. Nate Green, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Williamsburg City and spokesperson for the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA) said there is some precedent to this in the Commonwealth due to COVID-19. 

“The pandemic has allowed us to see this to a degree in action because we had a number of summonses that were issued in which they were given a date certain, and a time certain, and that had to be adjusted,” Green said to the subcommittee on Thursday. VACA took no position on the bill.

Green continued to tell the delegates that a letter was sent to defendants in Williamsburg during the spring of 2020 informing them that they had a new court date – a return signature was not necessary. If those individuals did not appear for their court date, “they were still charged with failure to appear,” Green said. “That may be a judge-by-judge situation, but the individuals that choose not to appear can still be held accountable.” 

Del. Rob Bell (R-Albermarle) expressed concern over placing an additional burden onto the courts by deciphering these cases in the future when a failure to appear occurs. “This is not an occasional thing,” said Del. Rob Bell. “I worry that we might be transferring a problem from one place to another.” 

“I’m getting afraid I am starting to think like Rob Bell,” Del. Scott said while laughing.

Green later pointed out that the arresting officer’s testimony can be used as evidence if defendants say that they are unaware of the court date. This leads to another point of friction for House Democrats: Without the signature, judges will be relying solely on the testimony from the arresting officer when considering additional charges. A failure to appear charge can result in a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the original charge.

LaBravia Jenkins, the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Fredericksburg since 2008 spoke in favor of the bill saying that police officers do not want to be forced to arrest people if they refuse to sign the summons. “This legislation would certainly help that situation,” she noted. 

Senator Monty Mason (D-Williamsburg) has a similar bill that also passed the Senate, though his bill is limited to only traffic offenses. “I was surprised to find that if you don’t sign you have to be taken immediately by the arresting officer to the magistrate,” Mason said when speaking in support of the bills. 

The subcommittee counsel informed the delegates during the debate that after limited research, he found only one other state with similar legislation in place.

There were no public speakers that spoke in opposition to the legislation, but the subcommittee remained silent when it was time to make a move. 

“This is one of those difficult areas in criminal law where we are trying to navigate respect for those who are in the public as well as the necessity of preventing people from avoiding a criminal charge,” subcommittee chair, Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News), said in an interview. “There is no easy way to be able to balance those values and I think that is the reason that we are working so hard on this issue.” 

Hanger is still holding out hope that the bill might be revisited when the full Courts committee meets. A spokesperson for House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), who serves as chair of the House Courts committee, declined to comment on prospects of the bill, saying they are focused on completing the work of the committee. 

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