Drive On: Examining Virginia’s New Law on Marijuana Possession Punishment
Virginia is notoriously harsh, especially on citizens who have criminal convictions. For instance, throughout this decade so far, much attention has been given to the way the Commonwealth treats its felons. In fact, it was headline news when Governor Terry McAuliffe opened up voting rights to tens of thousands of convicted felons last year – voting rights that were nearly impossible for many of those felons to previously obtain because of Virginia’s strict standards. It was controversial when it happened; the Republicans in the General Assembly fought against it. In the end, however, the courts (sort of) ruled in McAuliffe’s favor, and many of Virginia’s felons earned back some of their rights.
This is the significant climb that it takes in Virginia to scale back the penalties against citizens convicted of crimes.
That is why it is so surprising that Virginia did exactly that for a penalty attached to a drug-related crime.
Driver’s License Revocation:
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other outlets, the ability to drive was taken away from about 38,000 citizens each year because of drug-related offenses. In Virginia, driver’s licenses were automatically suspended for six months when someone was convicted of a drug offense. It was all part of the “war on drugs” that is slowly subsiding in most areas of government.
However, starting on July 1st, the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses came to an end for those with simple marijuana possession charges. Judges now have the ability to consider alternative consequences instead, thanks to HB 2051/1091 passed by the General Assembly during this year’s session.
According to WAVY, the new law “will allow a judge to opt for additional community service instead of automatically suspending someone’s driver’s license for six months.” This kind of flexibility in punishment only applies if the possession charge does not occur while the person is operating a vehicle. The change in the law has some people already counting the benefits.
Benefit of Removing the Automatic Revocation:
A pro-marijuana website is one of many outlets to point out that this automatic revocation was unfair to lower-income communities. Possession charges tend to hit lower-income communities the most, and it is those communities that need to be able to maintain their employment the most. Without the ability to drive, it is nearly impossible to get to work in many locations.
Without a doubt, this could be seen as a tiny step toward the legalization of marijuana as well. The Commonwealth of Virginia is a long way from taking that big leap, but this has to make it seem a bit more possible for those in favor.
It is important to briefly mention that changes to state law do not supersede federal law (at least according to the federal government). Even while states – some more than others – are relaxing laws, federal law is largely unchanged. Prosecution of marijuana-related laws may even increase.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has requested a full review of state and local policies in this area by July 27th. This has many people waiting and watching to see what might happen. Even a small change in law like the one that has just begun in Virginia might be under federal scrutiny.
Regardless, a penalty that automatically removes a legal right - one’s ability to drive - that may be unrelated to the committing of a drug crime is a step toward fairness. This does not, however, remove the significant drug crimes that are still in effect in Virginia. This is one major area of the law that requires a skilled defense attorney. If you are faced with this kind of legal trouble, call or e-mail today for a free consultation!
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