Last edited: October 26, 2003

Commission Bringing Laws into 21st Century

The 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 minor ones.

“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 this week.

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 December.

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 books.

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 Democrat.

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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