(The Center Square) – On Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s final day to address legislation passed by the General Assembly, the governor signed a bill to expand the state’s appellate court and took action on criminal justice reform bills.
Senate Bill 1261, sponsored by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, will expand the appellate court from 11 to 17. The legislation passed with support from Democratic leaders and opposition from Republican leaders in both chambers.
Democrats wanted to expand the court because they were expecting judges to have a heavier workload after the General Assembly passed numerous criminal justice reform bills last year and some this year. Republicans opposed the expansion out of concern that Democrats would try to fill the new spots with judges who are ideologically aligned with the Democrats’ policy agenda, which they alleged is soft on crime.
Northam also signed Senate Bill 1122 and Senate Bill 1138, which would add to the criminal justice reform changes in the past two years.
The former will repeal provisions in the Habitual Offender Act so a person does not have his license revoked or suspended simply for being a habitual offender. The legislation also requires that the Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles reinstate the licenses of those who had their license suspended or revoked simply for their status as a habitual offender, which will reinstate more than 13,000 licenses. This does not affect licenses suspended or revoked for driving-related reasons.
The latter bill removes from the criminal code the crime of donating or selling blood, body fluids, organs and tissues if one has HIV.
Northam also proposed changes to other criminal justice reform bills, which will now head back to the General Assembly for consideration.
House Bill 2113 and Senate bill 1339 would create a system to automatically seal certain criminal records and create a process for petition-based sealing. The language passed by the General Assembly would have this begin in 2025, but the governor’s amendment would allow agencies to begin the process before that date if infrastructure allows.
Legislation that would prohibit law enforcement agencies and campus police from buying or using facial recognition technology without express permission from the General Assembly was also amended by Northam. The amendment for House Bill 2031 would create an exemption for airports.
A bill that would limit the court’s authority to incarcerate a person for a probation or suspended sentence violation was also amended. The governor’s amendment to House Bill 2038 would require that a person who absconds or has outstanding restitution obligations stay on probation.