By DENISE LAVOIE Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The Virginia Senate on Wednesday approved legislation that would eliminate a six-month mandatory minimum sentence for assaulting a police officer, despite strenuous objections from Republicans who said the bill disrespects police at a time when they have come under attack during nationwide protests.
Democrats, who hold a narrow majority in the Senate, said the legislation does not minimize the crime of assaulting a police officer, but instead makes a distinction between serious assaults and minor assaults.
The bill keeps the charge as a felony, but gives a judge or jury discretion to reduce it to a misdemeanor if there is no bodily injury or if someone’s culpability is slight because of diminished physical or mental capacity or a developmental disorder.
If the charge is brought as a felony, it requires an investigation by a different police officer and must be approved by a Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Critics of the current law say police overuse the charge, particularly in cases where they fear the person they arrested will claim police brutality. The enhanced penalty for assaulting law enforcement officers also applies to judges, magistrates, corrections officers, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel.
Sen. Scott Surovell, who proposed the bill, said it is not meant to address serious physical assaults on police, which can be prosecuted under the state’s malicious wounding law and carry a two-year mandatory minimum sentence.
“What we’re talking about here are situations that involve much more insignificant minor touches,” Surovell said.
Republicans, however, said they worried about the timing of the bill, citing the nationwide protests and violent clashes between police and protesters since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“What in the world are we doing?” said Sen. John Cosgrove Jr. “Have you seen the attacks on police officers?”
Sen. Amanda Chase called the legislation “an attack on our law enforcement” and said it sends a message to criminals “that we’re going to stand back.”
The legislation was approved on a straight-line party vote, with all 21 Democrats voting in favor and 15 Republicans voting against it. It will now move on to the House, where Democrats hold a 55-45 majority.
The proposal is one of dozens of bills being considered by the legislature in a special session focused on addressing both the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread calls for police and criminal justice reforms after the killing of Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer as he struggled to breathe.
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