Saturday, September 23, 2023

Three Interesting Bills of the Week: Housing Authority Pets, CCTV Testimony and Inmate Autopsies

The Virginia General Assembly convened for its 2023 session in Richmond Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

RICHMOND — Hundreds of bills are filed for General Assembly consideration each year. In this occasional series, the Virginia Mercury takes a look at a few of the proposals that might not otherwise make headlines during the whirlwind legislative session.

Senate Bill 1384: Allowing tenants in housing authority properties to own dogs or cats

This legislation by Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, would require housing authorities to let tenants own and keep dogs or cats in their unit.

Tenants would be subject to “reasonable conditions” set by an authority, including pet deposits, spaying and neutering requirements and weight limits on animals over 50 pounds. Authorities couldn’t prohibit particular breeds of dog or cat.

Pet owners would also be required to follow state and federal law and regulations regarding public health and safety, animal control and animal cruelty.

The bill would be a “solution to a very grave problem” in shelters that are overflowing with animals across the commonwealth, said Holly Hazard of the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies during a House subcommittee this week. “There are loving families that want them.”

Originally, the bill would have allowed housing authority tenants to own one or more “common household pets,” a category that includes birds, rabbits, rodents, fish and nonvenomous reptiles. But some lawmakers in a House subcommittee balked at that language.

“If we allow rodents to be put in housing authority units, we’re going to be back another year trying to get rid of the rats,” said Del. William Wampler, R-Washington.

An amendment to limit the permission to cats and dogs was more successful, passing the panel on a 6-2 vote.

House Bill 2129: Allowing children to provide trial testimony via closed-circuit television 

HB 2129 by Del. Karrie Delaney, D-Fairfax, would allow a child aged 16 or younger who was a victim of or witness to a crime to provide testimony via closed-circuit television during a trial. A judge would have to determine that testifying in a courtroom would cause the child to suffer at least minor emotional trauma by being forced to be in the presence of the defendant.

An earlier version of the bill would have applied to children younger than 18.

“For children who have been victimized or assaulted, testifying in front of a full courtroom under the glare of their alleged abuser is often retraumatizing and additionally can lead to unsuccessful prosecutions,” said Delaney.

Under current law, a court can order that testimony be provided via CCTV if there is substantial likelihood that a child who was 14 or younger at the time of the offense and 16 or younger at the time of the trial will suffer severe emotional trauma from testifying.

Delaney said the current law is so restrictive that CCTV has only been successfully used one time for testimony in her locality of Fairfax. In that case, she said, a young girl was finally permitted to use CCTV after breaking down repeatedly in court while testifying that her father had sexually assaulted her.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, sought to reject the bill on the grounds that it was a “significant piece of legislation” that shouldn’t be considered for only “15 minutes in committee.”

“This is not the kind of bill you do in a short session when we have these kinds of time constraints, because this affects a lot of cases and a lot of people’s lives,” said Surovell.

Nevertheless, the bill made it out of committee on a 10-5 vote, with all opposition coming from Democrats.

House Bill 1827 and Senate Bill 1276: Requiring an autopsy for inmates who die in Department of Corrections custody

These identical bills from Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, and Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, would require that an autopsy be performed on any inmate who dies in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

The autopsy would be performed by the state’s chief medical examiner, an assistant chief medical examiner or a pathologist with whom the state has entered into an agreement.

The bill was brought forward on behalf of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration, said Cherry during a House subcommittee meeting late last month.

The Department of Corrections, Cherry said, is dealing with “a lot of frivolous lawsuits that many times they can’t defend themselves [against] because they don’t have a proper autopsy that has been done. We believe that this is actually going to be a cost-saving measure over time.”

Diane Abato of the attorney general’s office said the state faces a lawsuit every time an inmate dies.

In one instance, a lawsuit was brought forward after an inmate died at a hospital, Abato said, and the case was settled for $75,000 because there had been no autopsy to determine the cause of death.

“We recently had a lawsuit in federal court and our evaluation was that no one did anything wrong,” Abato said. “It was a $4 million verdict.”

Both bills unanimously passed their respective chambers earlier this month. Senate lawmakers unanimously voted to move forward with Cherry’s bill in committee this week.

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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