Virginia Senate rejects Miyares’ bid to expand attorney general’s prosecutorial authority

·4 min read

A Virginia Senate committee on Wednesday rejected legislation that would have allowed new Attorney General Jason Miyares to seize control of certain criminal cases from local prosecutors.

The Senate Judiciary committee voted 8-7 to “pass by indefinitely” on Senate Bill 563. The move essentially killed the legislation, which had been a major part of Miyares’ campaign. A similar bill remains pending in the House of Delegates.

Among those who spoke out against the legislation was Norfolk’s new Commonwealth’s Attorney, Ramin Fatehi, who spoke on behalf of several progressive prosecutors throughout the state, including Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales. Fatehi, a Democrat, called the proposed bill a “power grab” by Miyares and a “vendetta that is being prosecuted through legislation.”

The committee’s vote largely followed party lines, with Sen. Chap Peterson of Fairfax being the only Democrat to vote with Republicans to keep the legislation alive.

Despite the bill’s defeat in the senate, the Republican attorney general issued a statement late Wednesday expressing optimism that a House version of the legislation would move forward.

“I’m thrilled that my bill for concurrent jurisdiction on child rape cases received bipartisan support among members of the General Assembly and Commonwealth’s Attorneys,” the statement said. “We are hopeful that the house bill will move forward and we hope that additional senators will take note of the overwhelming law enforcement support and join us as well.”

The bill was introduced to the committee by Republican Sen. Ryan McDougle, of Hanover, and was greatly scaled back from the initial version proposed.

The original bill, filed on Jan. 12, would have given the attorney general authority to take over prosecution of a variety of violent criminal cases, including murders, rapes, robberies and malicious woundings at the request of a police chief or sheriff. A substitute bill brought forward Wednesday only asked to expand the attorney general’s authority to cases involving sexual assaults in which the victim was a child, and would have allowed it without a request from law enforcement.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Wednesday that the changes were made after the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys voiced strong opposition to the bill, with 91% of its members voting at an emergency meeting to oppose it. Amanda Howie, a spokeswoman for the group, declined to confirm the vote total because she said the association’s meetings are private.

Virginia Chief Deputy Attorney General and former Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp told the committee the legislation would allow the Attorney General’s Office to create “super prosecutors” solely focused on child sex assault cases. They would step in when local commonwealth’s attorneys “can’t or won’t” prosecute the cases properly, or when a local office asks for their help, he said.

Leaders of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association and Virginia State Police Association spoke in favor of the legislation. But representatives of both the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys and the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers asked the committee to reject it.

André Hakes, president of the defense lawyers group, said it was a “rarity” for prosecutors and defense lawyers to agree on legislation. Hakes said she believed local prosecutors are the ones best equipped to handle the cases.

A few of the committee members questioned why the legislation was needed.

“This is about a single case in Fairfax County that got a lot of attention,” Fatehi told the committee.

The case involved a 53-year-old man who was convicted of molesting a young relative over a 5-year period. Prosecutors offered the man a plea deal that capped his sentence at just a little more than 17 years, which was at the high end of sentencing guidelines. Miyares has repeatedly said he believed the offer was too lenient and unfair to the victim.

Fatehi, who was elected in November, told the committee the legislation was unnecessary and that Miyares should allow local prosecutors to do the job they were elected to do.

“Please leave us to answer to our voters,” Fatehi said. “We do not need this help. If we do, we know how to ask for it.”

Jane Harper, 757-222-5097, jane.harper@pilotonline.com