Virginia bans no-knock warrants and chokeholds as Northam signs new police reform laws

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has signed several bills to reform policing in the state, including legislation that empowers localities to establish civilian reviews boards with subpoena power, creating statewide minimum training standards for officers and a ban on no-knock search warrants and neck restraints.

The governor called for a special session this summer initially to revise the state’s budget after the economic fallout from the pandemic but in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May, the need to address social justice issues felt urgent and compelled lawmakers to push for changes.

Virginia Democrats set an ambitious agenda, proposing measures to prohibit no-knock warrants, ban neck restraints, to eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement and to give judges and juries the discretion to reduce the charge for assaulting law enforcement officers from a felony to a misdemeanor if the officer is not hurt during the encounter. Northam even announced his own priorities ahead of the session, which included expanding the criteria required for decertification and requiring officers to intervene if they witness a fellow officer attempting to or committing an unlawful use of force.

In the end, after an unprecedented special session that lasted much longer than expected, some measures introduced were passed on party-line votes while others were killed in committee with bipartisan approval.

Lawmakers did approve a ban on no-knock search warrants and neck restraints, key measures that protesters had called for during demonstrations after the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The bill restricts law enforcement from using chokeholds unless it is deemed “immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person.”

Northam announced signing the bills Wednesday, adding that Virginia is now the third state in the U.S. to ban no-knock warrants — with Florida and Oregon being the others.

“Too many families, in Virginia and across our nation, live in fear of being hurt or killed by police,” Northam said in a statement. “These new laws represent a tremendous step forward in rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. I am grateful to the legislators and advocates who have worked so hard to make this change happen. Virginia is better, more just, and more equitable with these laws on our books.”

The governor’s office provided a list of the police reform and criminal justice bills that will soon be law after being signed by Northam:

  • Governor Northam signed Senate Bill 5030, sponsored by Senator Locke, omnibus police reform legislation, which incorporates a number of critical reform measures passed by the House of Delegates:
  • House Bill 5099, sponsored by Delegate Aird, prohibits law enforcement officers from seeking or executing a no-knock search warrant. With Governor Northam’s signature, Virginia becomes the third state in the nation to ban no-knock warrants.
  • House Bill 5049, sponsored by Delegate Helmer, reduces the militarization of police by prohibiting law enforcement from obtaining or using specified equipment, including grenades, weaponized aircraft, and high caliber firearms. Governor Northam amended this bill to clarify that law enforcement agencies can seek a waiver to use restricted equipment for search and rescue missions.
  • House Bill 5109, sponsored by Delegate Hope, creates statewide minimum training standards for law enforcement officers, including training on awareness of racism, the potential for biased profiling, and de-escalation techniques. Governor Northam made technical amendments to this bill to align it with Senate Bill 5030.
  • House Bill 5104, sponsored by Delegate Price, mandates law enforcement agencies and jails request the prior employment and disciplinary history of new hires.
  • House Bill 5108, sponsored by Delegate Guzman, expands and diversifies the Criminal Justice Services Board, ensuring that the perspectives of social justice leaders, people of color, and mental health providers are represented in the state’s criminal justice policymaking. 
  • House Bill 5051, sponsored by Delegate Simon, strengthens the process by which law enforcement officers can be decertified and allows the Criminal Justice Services Board to initiate decertification proceedings.
  • House Bill 5069, sponsored by Delegate Carroll Foy, limits the circumstances in which law enforcement officers can use neck restraints. 
  • House Bill 5029, sponsored by Delegate McQuinn, requires law enforcement officers intervene when they witness another officer engaging or attempting to engage in the use of excessive force.
  • House Bill 5045, sponsored by Delegate Delaney, makes it a Class 6 felony for law enforcement officers to “carnally know” someone they have arrested or detained, an inmate, parolee, probationer, pretrial defendant, or post trial offender, if the officer is in a position of authority over such individual.
  • Governor Northam signed House Bill 5055 and Senate Bill 5035, sponsored by Leader Herring and Senator Hashmi, respectively, which empower localities to create civilian law enforcement review boards. These new laws also permit civilian review boards the authority to issue subpoenas and make binding disciplinary decisions.
  • Governor Northam signed Senate Bill 5014, sponsored by Senator Edwards, which mandates the creation of minimum crisis intervention training standards and requires law enforcement officers complete crisis intervention training.
  • Governor Northam signed Senate Bill 5018, sponsored by Senator Bell, which allows indivduals serving a sentence for certain felony offenses who are terminally ill to petition the Parole Board for conditional release.
  • Governor Northam amended House Bill 5148 and Senate Bill 5034, sponsored by Delegate Scott and Senator Boysko, respectively, which allow for increased earned sentencing credits. The Governor proposed a six-month delay to give the Department of Corrections sufficient time to implement this program.

State Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), who sponsored the omnibus bill that was signed into law, called the approved bills “transformative” on Wednesday.

“The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery woke Americans to a longstanding problem that has existed for generations—and we know Virginia is not immune,” Locke said in a statement in Northam’s announcement. “These are transformative bills that will make Virginians’ lives better, and I’m so proud to see them signed into law.”

The Virginia Association of Chief of Police is in support of reform legislation.

“The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police supports many measures passed by the legislature, such as accreditation, decertification and enhanced training.  We will work with the 2021 General Assembly to further amend the bills approved today to add critical safety measures that were not adopted during the special session.”

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