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Police watching case in which Charlottesville judge said officers didn’t have jurisdiction

February 1, 2014 | Virginia News

By K Burnell Evans | Daily Progress

Local police and law enforcement around the state say they are eying a Charlottesville Circuit Court ruling that could change the way officers conduct investigations.

At issue is whether officers who cross jurisdictional lines to question someone are entitled to the protections of their badge, even though they are working beyond their territorial limit.

Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. dismissed two felony assault charges this week against a man shot in a May 26 altercation with Albemarle County police who had crossed into the city to investigate a hit and run, saying the officers were not responding to “an emergency involving any immediate threat to life or public safety.”

The decision will prompt conversations about how city and county police work together, said Charlottesville police spokesman Lt. Ronnie Roberts. City officers routinely cross into the county when working on cases, he said.

“My chief and command staff will review this ruling and evaluate how we approach investigations in the future,” Roberts said. “This will most likely require our city attorney’s input also.”

The decision could have broad implications for local law enforcement officers whose investigations span multiple jurisdictions, said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

“What this ruling signals, is that [police] lose that protection when they leave their jurisdiction, which puts them in harm’s way,” Schrad said. “We are watching this very carefully. We’ve never had a judicial opinion like this, that’s for sure.”

Peatross on Friday told prosecutors that they could refile assault charges against Josue Salinas Valdez, 38, but barred them from seeking the enhanced penalty Valdez faced initially for charges of attacking a law enforcement officer.

The maximum sentence for misdemeanor simple assault is 12 months in jail. Assault on a law enforcement officer is a Class 6 felony, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

“It’s the fact that I ruled he was not a police officer at the time [of the assault] that made the felony go away,” Peatross said Friday.

Prosecutors argue that county Officers James Herring and William Underwood did not forfeit their police powers when they approached Valdez in Charlottesville that night.

"The protections of Virginia Code ... are conditioned upon two, and only two, requirements: first, the individual’s status as an employee of a police department that is part of or administered by a political subdivision of the Commonwealth; and second, that the individual is engaged in the performance of his public duties at the time of the assault," lawyers wrote in a motion asking Peatross to reconsider his decision.

Police say Valdez punched Underwood three times in the face and then charged at him carrying the officer's own baton during the chaotic exchange on Birdwood Court.

Herring and Underwood arrived at the home nine minutes after a woman called 911 to report that a car had rear-ended her vehicle at a stoplight and sped away through the Seminole Square shopping center, according to a release.

The caller was able to provide a plate number and description of the vehicle and its driver. Herring had cited Valdez for a misdemeanor hit and run in Albemarle County the previous month, according to court records. Valdez was convicted and sentenced to pay a $500 fine a few days before the incident on Birdwood Court, the records state.

A Charlottesville grand jury in June indicted Valdez of driving under the influence, felony hit and run, attempted malicious wounding of a law enforcement officer and felony assault on a law enforcement officer, all stemming from the events of May 26.

"People were talking at the time [Valdez] was arrested about this case and whether or not the county officers should have been in the city," said Scott Goodman, a Charlottesville-based defense attorney.

The judge's interpretation of law governing jurisdiction was narrow, Goodman said, but sound.

"The law comes down on the side of the individual when it comes to statutes like this that can be interpreted either way," he said.

"The benefit of the doubt in cases of ambiguity goes to the defendant, which is intended to be a check on the heavy hand of the state,” Goodman continued. "It's a check on law enforcement, and that's a good thing for law enforcement too, because it builds public trust."

Albemarle County Police Chief Col. Steve Sellers declined to comment on the ruling.

"It should be noted that the decision has absolutely no bearing on whether the officers involved were justified in using force," he said, through a spokeswoman.

Lawyers for Valdez and Assistant Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Joseph Platania declined to comment on Friday. Peatross said he'd decide whether or not to reconsider dropping the charges by Monday. (Editor's Note: Judge Peatross stood by his decision - Read more)

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