Category Archives: Courts and law

Marijuana legalization in Colorado: the good, the bad and the ugly

High there!  As Virginia politicians scramble to stake out positions on reforming marijuana laws in the Old Dominion ahead of this November’s elections, it is useful to look at the actual experience in Colorado after five years of legal recreational marijuana sales.  There is no universally accepted source of truth regarding the success or failure of Colorado’s marijuana legalization. However, many articles have been written regarding Colorado’s experience and the general perception seems to be positive albeit with some significant concerns. As Virginia moves down the road of marijuana reform its political class would be well advised to heed the lessons of those who have already gone down that path. Continue reading

Court Backs Little Debbie In Tax Dispute

McKee Foods’ Little Debbie

Don’t underestimate Little Debbie – the spunky tyke took on the Augusta County tax collectors and won.  But the county still has her money.

The Virginia Supreme Court has sided with manufacturer McKee Foods Corporation, which makes the Little Debbie snack products, in a dispute over the tax assessment on its 828,000-square-foot factory in Augusta County. The July 18 opinion by Chief Justice Donald Lemons (here) reverses a lower court decision, rejects the county’s existing valuations and sends the dispute back to the local circuit court for another look.  Continue reading

Differences in Arrest Rates for Marijuana Offenses across Virginia Localities

Data exhaust. In a relatively recent BR post “Marijuana arrests and racism in Virginia (especially Arlington County)” I examined the disparity between black and white Virginians when it comes to arrests for marijuana possession. My conclusion that African-American Virginians are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession came from data generated by a VCU Capital News Service study on the matter.  Helpfully, the VCU / CNS article provided a link to a spreadsheet containing the raw data (you can download the same spreadsheet from the source link under the Datawrapper graphic). As I’ve continued to examine the VCU / CNS data I’ve noticed that it’s not just your race that affects the odds of being arrested for marijuana possession.  Where you are in Virginia matters too.  A lot. Continue reading

Illinois to Legalize Recreational Pot: Implications for Virginia

Legal tokin’ in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign Illinois’ recreational marijuana legalization bill tomorrow. Illinois, America’s sixth most populous state, will become the 11th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. The District of Columbia has also legalized the possession of ganja. This has implications for Virginia.

First, Illinois is the first state to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana via the state legislature. Vermont’s legislature legalized the possession but not the sale of marijuana. All other states came to legalization via citizen led ballot initiatives. Since the Virginia Constitution has no provision for citizen-led ballot initiatives, the General Assembly would have to follow in the footsteps of the Illinois legislature to legalize marijuana in the Old Dominion. Illinois has proven this is possible. The second implication is the looming encirclement of Virginia by states with legalized recreational marijuana. The closer legal pot dispensaries get to Virginia the harder it will be for Virginia to stop cross border marijuana flows. Continue reading

Give Fairfax a Chance to Clear His Name

Lawyers for Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax have formally requested prosecutors in Suffolk County, Mass., and Durham County, N.C. to open criminal investigations into the sexual assault allegations made against Fairfax in February, reports WJLA.

The allegation of Meredith Watson, who accused Fairfax of raping her in 2000 when they were students at Duke University, should be fully investigated, argued Barry J. Pollack, Fairfax’s attorney, in the letter to the Durham County district attorney. Wrote Pollack:

If an investigation were to determine that the allegation is true, it should be criminally prosecuted. Conversely, if an investigation were to determine that the allegation is false, which Lt. Governor Fairfax is confident would be the conclusion of any unbiased and professional investigation, the matter could be closed and the public informed.

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Giving Slumlords a Bad Name

Winter Whittaker. Photo credit: Virginia Mercury

I tend to be sympathetic to renters and landlords in their disputes with problem tenants, many of whom can be irresponsible and exasperating. Some renters are deadbeats. But then I run across a shocking case like the one documented by renter Winter Whittaker and published on the Virginia Mercury.

Whittaker, a Richmond resident, called her landlord, Dean Parsons, to ask him to fix a leaky roof. We don’t know the history behind the phone call, which may or may not leave out critical context. Clearly, Parsons, who claims to oversee a portfolio of 375 apartments and rental units, was agitated about something. Whatever the possible extenuating circumstances, it’s hard to imagine any excuse for the racist and profanity-laced tirade he unleashed.

Responding to Whittaker’s threat of a lawsuit, he said, “I don’t give a shit about you. … I don’t give a good goddamn. You’re just another dumb ass n—— I got to go to court with and I go to court every damn day with them. It ain’t no big damn deal to me.”

You don’t have to just take her word for it. The Virginia Mercury provides the recording. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Boomtowns, Amazon, and Rent-a-Tribe

Pockets of prosperity. America’s big metropolitan regions may be sucking up most of the growth and prosperity of the current business cycle, but they’re not sucking up all of it. In crunching data measuring economic prosperity, population growth and rising incomes, GOBankingRates found numerous “cities” (not metros) that qualify as “boomtowns.” One region stood out as especially vigorous: the South. And Virginia nabbed two spots in the top 10, reports CNBC.

Charlottesville ranked 6th among cities in the South with 2012 -to-2017 income growth of 17.9%, population growth of 11.9%, and GDP growth of 22.4%.

Richmond ranked 9th in the South with income growth of 15% over the same period, population growth of 7.6%, and GDP growth of 22.4%.

Can Amazon avoid a housing crunch? Amazon officials have told the Washington Post that the company will learn from its experience in Seattle how to avoid creating a housing crunch when its HQ2 expansion brings 25,000 jobs to a Washington region that already has full employment and high housing prices. Amazon contributed $80 million to public and private efforts to support affordable housing and prevent homelessness in Seattle, said Jay Carney, a senior vice president. But he added that it is primarily the government’s responsibility to ensure an adequate supply of affordable housing. Continue reading

Judge Rules Virginia’s Confederate Statues Protected by State Law

Statue of Gen. George Henry Thomas, Virginian and Union General, in Thomas Circle – Washington, DC.

Court case. Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore has ruled that the City of Charlottesville cannot remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The judge determined that these are war memorials protected under Virginia state law. Articles describing the decision can be found here, here and here. As the Roanoke Times writes …

“The Monument Fund filed suit in March 2017, claiming the Charlottesville City Council in 2016 violated a state code section that bans the removal of war memorials when it voted to remove the statue of Lee. The suit was later amended to also include the Jackson statue.

The defense recently has focused on the question of whether the statues constitute monuments. Recent motions by the defense have sought to have a jury make the determination.”

Dillon’s Rule. Virginia has a strict implementation of Dillon’s Rule. This means that a high percentage of political power within the Commonwealth of Virginia rests with the state government rather than the localities. This political philosophy has been used by the state to micromanage localities for decades. One example is a section of Virginia law titled, “Memorials for War Veterans”. The law allows localities to construct memorials for war veterans but not to remove those same memorials. This section of Virginia code was the basis for the suit over the two statues in Charlottesville. Continue reading

Courts Authorizing “Reverse Location” Warrants in Virginia

FBI “reverse location” warrant in Henrico County…. Photo credit: Forbes

Big brother Google is watching you. Back in October, 2018,  Forbes reported that a Virginia court had authorized the FBI to use a “reverse location” warrant to try to solve a series of crimes in Henrico County, Va. This warrant, also known as a geofence warrant, allows police to compel Google to provide all cellphone activity for all people in a general area over a specified period of time. The resulting handover of data includes locations and other information on potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of people. While Google has complied with the warrants in the past, it is unclear whether the company complied in the Henrico case. Continue reading

How Government Creates Poverty: Fines and Fees

Government is much better at creating poverty than at curing it.

Yesterday the General Assembly voted to end the practice of suspending driving licenses for non-payment of fines or restitution or both and ordered Department of Motor Vehicles to restore driving privileges for hundreds of thousands of Virginians. If you need to do business at a DMV office in July, get there early. Restoring 600,000 licenses may take a while.   Continue reading

Virginia’s “Secret” Medical Marijuana Program

The doctor who should be governor. State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant is a Republican from Henrico County. She is also a practicing physician. In this year’s General Assembly session she put forth SB1557 which expanded last year’s so-called “Let Doctor’s Decide” legislation (HB1251).

What’s new? The 2018 legislation (HB1251) authorized licensed medical providers to prescribe CBD and THC-A oil “to alleviate the symptoms of any diagnosed condition or disease determined by the practitioner to benefit from such use.” CBD, or cannabidiol, is a naturally occurring compound found in the resinous flower of marijuana plants. It is used to treat a variety of maladies. It is non-intoxicating. THCA, or tetrahydrocannabinolic acid, is the non-psychoactive acid form of THC found in marijuana plants when raw. It is also non-intoxicating unless it is heated. Once heated, THCA releases THC which is intoxicating.  The 2018 legislation restricted THCA oil to contain no more than 5 mg of THC (the psychoactive component of marijuana). Continue reading

Yes, Let’s Restore Drivers Licenses. But…

The General Assembly spiked bills in the 2019 session that would have ended the practice of suspending the drivers licenses of Virginians who fail to pay court fines and other obligations unrelated to driving. Without some kind of repercussion, foes of the bills argued, those obligations often would go unpaid.

Now Governor Ralph Northam is proposing to use the budget as an end run around the failed legislation. He is adding an amendment to the budget bill to end the licenses-suspension practice and reinstate driving privileges for more than 600,000 Virginians.

“Having a driver’s license is essential to a person’s ability to maintain a job and provide for their families,” Northam said at a press conference yesterday. “It is especially pertinent to those that live in rural Virginia because we don’t have public transportation that is adequate to get to employment.” Continue reading

When Hate Crime Equals Thought Crime

Today the Washington Post tells us that James A. Fields, Jr., the neo-Nazi who plowed a car into a group of counterprotesters at the infamous white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, is scheduled to appear in federal court for a hearing on “hate-crime” charges. Interestingly, the article neglects to tell us specifically which “hate crimes” were involved.

Fields has been found guilty already of first-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer, one of the people struck by Fields’ car. He has been sentenced to life in prison for the murder charge, 70 years for each of five counts of aggravated malicious wounding, 20 years for each of three counts of malicious wounding, and nine years for leaving the scene of a fatal crash.

The man deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison. He should be darn grateful he didn’t get the death penalty. Personally, I think he should get the electric chair (or whatever we use for capital punishment in Virginia these days). But I’m at a loss about the hate crime charges. Continue reading

Bad Analysis, Legislative Gamesmanship, Misplaced Priorities

In 2016, Keith Harward was released from Virginia’s prisons after serving 33 years for a crime he did not commit.

Harward was convicted of a 1982 rape and murder largely on the basis of the testimony of forensic dentists that bite marks on the victim matched his teeth. Many years later, following improvements in DNA testing methods, analysis of evidence left at the crime scene excluded Harward as the perpetrator.

The use of bite marks and other traditional evidence such as hair analysis has been largely discredited as being unreliable and having little scientific basis by both the National Academy of Sciences (here) and by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (here).  In addition, the current guidelines of the professional governing body for forensic dentists recommends the use of bite mark evidence only for exculpatory purposes (here).

Virginia rules for the introduction of new evidence after a person has been found guilty of a crime are among the strictest in the nation. Generally, a convicted person has only 21 days following the entry of a final order by the court to bring forward new evidence supporting his or her innocence. There are two exceptions. If there is new evidence that was unknown or unavailable at the trial, the convicted person may petition the Court of Appeals to consider that evidence and set aside the finding of guilty. However, the bar is high for anyone to use this avenue. The other exception relates to previously unknown or untested “human biological evidence”, i.e. DNA testing. Upon learning the results of such testing, the convicted person may petition the Virginia Supreme Court for a writ of actual innocence. Again, the conditions under which such a writ can be granted are strict. Failing to succeed with, or qualify for, these methods, the convicted person may petition the Governor for a pardon. Continue reading

Unraveling the Ralph Northam Infanticide Controversy

Background. The past several weeks have been full of controversy for three of Virginia’s leading Democratic politicians – Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring. The local, state and national media have been focused on allegations of racism against Northam and Herring and sexual assault against Fairfax. However, prior to the media onslaught regarding racism and rape Governor Ralph Northam was embroiled in another controversy regarding comments he made during a radio show. During that radio interview Gov. Northam said some things that some people felt condoned, or even supported, infanticide. What did Ralph Northam say (in context) and did he really condone or support infanticide?

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