Monday, January 30, 2023

Swearing charge, really? Well, it’s been removed, but here’s the deal in the Historic Triangle

A Williamsburg Police cruiser at night. (WYDaily file)
A Williamsburg Police cruiser with lights on at night. (WYDaily file)

Virginia residents can’t be charged for cursing in public anymore.

On March 4, the General Assembly voted to change a section of Virginia code –– which lumped public intoxication or swearing as one charge –– by removing the cursing part.

Previously, law enforcement agencies in Virginia could charge its residents with public intoxication or swearing.

“If any person profanely curses or swears or is intoxicated in public, whether such intoxication results from alcohol, narcotic drug, or other intoxicant or drug of whatever nature, he shall be deemed he guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor,” according to the previous code section. “In any area in which there is located a court-approved detoxification center, a law-enforcement officer may authorize the transportation, by police or otherwise, of public inebriates to such detoxification center in lieu of arrest; however, no person shall be involuntarily detained in such center.”

The repeal took effect in July. Public swearing was a Class 4 misdemeanor which could end in a fine for up to $250.

But some localities were still using the outdated language in their crime logs and arrest reports in November including the Williamsburg Police Department, the James City County Police Department and the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office.

“Our reporting system still has the category listed as “public swearing or intoxication.” I do not know personally of the code ever being used simply for swearing,” Charles Ericsson, spokesman for the Williamsburg Police Department, wrote in an email.

WYDaily reached out to Stephanie Williams, spokeswoman for the James City County Police Department, and asked about the public intoxication or swearing charges on the department’s daily bulletin.

Why were these charges combined and why was swearing in public a charge in the first place?

Williams was unsure ––noting the department uses a drunk in public charge–– and said it was possible the department had used certain codes or “classification headings” for FBI reporting purposes.

“So sometimes it pulls just in our system based on that federal code or federal heading,” she said.

She later sent the following response to WYDaily.

Williams reiterated the “code section recently changed,” and the “language is being removed from our system.”

She linked to the bill removing the language as well as the current and new code section. 

On Nov. 6, Williams said the department changed the reporting terminology so the system has now been updated.

In an email on the same day, she referred to the public intoxication or swearing language used in the records management system as “simply data entry wording that was not changed.”

“That is auto-populated from arrest records that are entered by our records clerks,” Williams wrote. “Officers are not entering that information and do not see it.”

“One has nothing to do with the other,” she added.

Williams noted officers are notified about all law changes in an email with a “detailed explanation.” There is also a training officer who provides information to the other officers about changes and is available if they have questions.

“The changes are also covered in legal update training in annual in-service,” she said.

It’s unclear why the department had not updated their system prior to WYDaily’s inquiry.

York-Poquoson Sheriff Danny Diggs believes the old law had been like that for 40 or 50 years, and he is not sure why the charges were combined.

He said if someone was cursing and carrying on around a school or a park with kids and had a mental issue, or not under a substance, that gave the sheriff’s office a tool to deal with it.

“They’ve taken away a tool that we could use to diffuse a volatile situation,” Diggs said.

He said he and his deputies were aware of the change, and they have training sessions  about new laws when that have passed.

WYDaily reporters Julia Marsigliano, Gabrielle Rente and Annie Gallo contributed to this report.


Julia Marsigliano
Julia Marsigliano
Julia Marsigliano is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She covers everything on the Peninsula from local government and law enforcement agencies to family-run businesses and weather updates. Before WYDaily, she covered Hampton and Newport News for WYDaily’s sister publication, HNNDaily before both publications merged in December 2018. Julia was born in Tokyo, Japan and moved to Long Island, New York in 2001. A true New Yorker, she loves pizza, bagels and good Chinese food. Send comments, tips and other tidbits to You can follow her on Twitter at @jmarsigliano

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