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Four of Attorney General’s Public Safety Bills Go to Governor

March 5, 2014 | Virginia News

Richmond--Several of Attorney General Mark R. Herring's public safety bills have passed the General Assembly and are going to the Governor for his signature.

One of the Attorney General's major bills – SB640 (Howell) – will make witnesses of drug-related crimes and violent felonies eligible for important protections, including the ability to keep identifying and contact information confidential during court proceedings. The Office of the Attorney General's Division of Public Safety and Enforcement drafted the bill and brought it to the General Assembly based on feedback from Commonwealth's Attorneys who have had difficulty getting witnesses to testify because of fear of reprisal.

"Witness testimony is often key to getting dangerous criminals off the streets and behind bars, and those who provide testimony should be able to do so without fearing for their safety or their family's safety," said Attorney General Herring.  "This is an important bill that will give more Virginians the protections they may need to feel comfortable testifying against a gang member, drug dealer, or violent felon. I appreciate Senator Howell's patronage of the bill and the Commonwealth's Attorneys who brought this issue to the attention of my office and helped find a good solution."

This bill was supported by a broad coalition of public safety advocates including the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys, Fraternal Order of Police, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, Virginia Network for Victims & Witnesses of Crime, and Protect.org.

"The Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys urges the enactment of SB640, which would extend privacy protections to the victims and witnesses of violent felonies," said Mike Doucette, past president and legislative chairman for the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys and Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney. "Virginia law already offers these protections to the victims and witnesses of criminal street gang violence; it only makes sense to protect these people in all crimes of violence."

The law currently allows witnesses of gang-related crimes to request that the criminal justice system keep confidential their address, telephone number, or place of employment of the witness or a member of their family. This bill would extend those protections to witnesses of crimes including the manufacture, sale, or distribution of drugs and violent felonies such as homicide, assault, or sexual assault. The bill does not limit the right of a defendant or the government to examine witnesses in court of law.

Several other public safety bills that were drafted or introduced by Attorney General Herring or his staff have also passed the General Assembly, including measures to crack down on synthetic drugs (HB1112), protect the addresses of stalking victims (HB1233), make 911 calls easier to use in court proceedings (HB1248), and phase out "fox penning." Additional legislation remains before the General Assembly.

"I appreciate the hard work of the patrons who guided these bills through the legislative process and the members of my team who drafted and advocated for these important measures," said Attorney General Herring. "We've been working closely with the General Assembly in recent weeks and will continue to do so as they consider several important public safety bills remaining before them."

Bills currently awaiting the Governor's signature include:

HB 1112, Synthetic/Analog Drugs (Garrett)

Attorney General Herring carried the original synthetic/analog drug bill as a state senator. This bill was developed with assistance from the Attorney General's office to give prosecutors and law enforcement officials more tools to keep dangerous synthetic drugs off the streets and away from young people. The bill updates some definitions based on the latest chemistry, makes selling or distributing these substances a class 5 rather than class 6 felony, and establishes a faster process for the Board of Pharmacy to add designer drugs to the controlled substances schedule so that they can respond more quickly to emerging threats.

HB 1233, Address Confidentiality (Toscano)

This bill, drafted by Attorney General's staff and introduced on his behalf, extends the Address Confidentiality Program to victims of stalking. As with victims of domestic violence, protecting residential address information can be critical for the safety of victims of stalking who move to addresses unknown to their perpetrators.  This legislation allows victims to protect their residential address from public disclosure when applying for services from state and local agencies.

HB 1248, Self authentication of 911 phone calls (Surovell)

This bill, introduced at the request of Attorney General Herring's public safety staff, will make it easier to admit 911 calls in criminal proceedings. As long as the recording is authenticated by the custodian of the record, such as an emergency communications center manager, it will be considered admissible in court, similar to the way a toxicology or autopsy report is handled. The current rules require a complex and burdensome process for authenticating and admitting 911 calls. The bill has support from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys.

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