Commission Bringing Laws into 21st Century
Washington Times, October 11, 2003
By Bob Lewis
RICHMOND—After three years of work to modernize
state criminal laws that date to 1619, Virginia’s Crime Commission heard
proposals to strike archaic and unconstitutional statutes, including sodomy
bans the Supreme Court rendered moot.
In editing more than 700 pages of sometimes indecipherable text, the
commission hopes to present the General Assembly with a simplified criminal
code that toughens punishment for the gravest offenses and eases sentences for
“In doing this, we have read every single word of the criminal code of
Virginia,” Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican and the
chairman of the panel, said at a regular monthly meeting of the commission
Recommendations from a study committee varied from defining which crimes
are punishable by death to repealing such obscure and redundant laws as those
that regulate the screening of movie previews or ban people from freeloading
rides aboard railroad cars.
The commission will hold public hearings on the proposed reforms in
Should the full commission endorse repealing the state’s fornication ban
or amend its “crimes against nature” prohibitions, it will set up a clash
with legislative social conservatives determined to keep the laws on the
Key provisions of those laws, which target homosexual acts, became
unenforceable after the U.S. Supreme Court this year struck down Texas’
sodomy laws. The high court’s ruling, however, did not affect such offenses
as prostitution, sex with minors or sex in public.
“Keeping the crimes against nature law on the books, though perhaps
unenforceable, will send a clear message that the Commonwealth of Virginia is
serious about marriage and decency,” Victoria Cobb, chief lobbyist for the
conservative Family Foundation, said in a statement she sent to reporters
before the commission had even adjourned Wednesday.
Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, an attorney on the commission and a
conservative who intends to run for attorney general in two years, said he
believes the Supreme Court’s sodomy ruling was a bad one.
“The question is how do we narrowly interpret that holding and what are
the correct legal words to amend the Virginia statute so that it’s not
broadly interpreted by 121 circuit court judges across the commonwealth,”
said Mr. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican.
“One approach is to do nothing. Whether we do nothing or whether we act,
the law’s going to basically be the same,” he said.
If it comes to a legislative fight, the Republican-dominated General
Assembly is unlikely to change the sodomy laws, said another commission
member, Delegate Ward Armstrong.
“It’s no secret that there is great cautiousness in this body to deal
with ... a very explosive issue. You’ve got people who feel very strongly
about it on both ends of the spectrum,” said Mr. Armstrong, Henry County
The subcommittee also recommended that other state laws voided by Supreme
Court rulings be deleted from the bloated code books. That includes “blue
laws” that ban doing business on Sundays and the prohibition against burning
or defacing U.S. or Virginia flags.
They were a small part of wholesale changes that would improve the
structure, update and simplify crime statutes, some of which derive from
Colonial-era English common law.
For instance, the threshold “felony larceny from the
person”—essentially strong-arm robbery—has remained at $5 since at least
1867. In today’s dollars, “that would come to about $93,” said
commission member Richard P. Kern.
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