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Bills seek to protect responders from reckless driving

“Andrew’s Law,” legislation that would punish as a felony reckless driving that seriously injures or kills an on-duty responder or highway worker, passed out of the Senate Finance Committee this week.

The legislation, House Bill 1148 and Senate Bill 293, was introduced after Virginia state trooper Andrew Fox, 27, was run over and killed while directing traffic at the Virginia State Fair in 2012.

Under the proposed law, a reckless driver who seriously injures or kills an on-duty law-enforcement officer, emergency medical services responder, firefighter or highway worker would be required to pay a minimum $2,500 fine in addition to having his or her driver’s license suspended for one year. The court would also have the power to force the driver to pay a civil penalty of up to $10,000.

HB1148 would charge the driver with a Class 6 felony, and SB293 has been amended to charge the driver with a Class 5 felony.

The driver of the Jeep Cherokee in the 2012 accident was Angelica C. Valencia, 27, of Doswell, Va. In 2013, Valencia received a misdemeanor charge of reckless driving and a suspended one-year jail sentence, in addition to paying a $1,000 fine.

Sen. Phillip Puckett (D-Dist. 38) introduced SB293. The senator says Fox’s family approached him and explained to him that they felt Valencia’s misdemeanor charge and punishment were not sufficient.

“Their concern was that the law was not strong enough to rise to the level of the accident that had happened,” Puckett said.

The House version of the bill has been referred to the House Courts of Justice Committee.

Del. Vivian Watts (D-Dist. 39), a member of the House Courts of Justice Committee said she would not oppose HB1148 as introduced but she believes some of the language of the bill is too broadly stated.

“There are a lot of definitions of ‘reckless’ in the Code,” Watts said. “If you define that the driver should be aware of using extra caution when approaching the scene and he doesn’t use that extra caution, then I think you really increase the chances of the bill passing.”

Watts says HB1148 may help protect responders and highway workers from harm but says there also needs to be more focus on safety training and ways to promote more cautious driving around emergency scenes and areas where highway workers are. “This bill may be part of the solution,” Watts said. “But it’s certainly only part of the solution.”

— Kate Miller, Capital News Service

GOP aims to uphold marriage ban

Virginia’s House of Delegates approved a bill this week allowing legislators to defend any law the governor and attorney general decide not to uphold on behalf of the state.

House Bill 706, proposed by Delegate C. Todd Gilbert (R-Dist. 15) would permit a member of the General Assembly to represent the “interests of the commonwealth” in circumstances where the constitutionality, legality or application of Virginia’s adopted laws are questioned by the governor or attorney general.

A Gilbert spokesman says the delegate proposed the bill because he was aware of Herring’s “threats” on the campaign trail to not defend the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in court.

Herring said last month he believes the commonwealth’s constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman violates the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Herring stated in a press release he would side with the plaintiffs in the federal Bostic v. Rainey case and seek to declare Virginia’s gay marriage ban unconstitutional.

Gilbert says Herring’s decision sets a dangerous precedent and shows disregard for the oath and obligation he took to defend Virginia’s constitution.

“The attorney general does not have the authority to unilaterally make that decision for the people,” Gilbert said.

Del. Gregory D. Habeeb (R-Dist. 8) voted in support of HB706.

“The lawyer in me is stunned an attorney general and a governor would take that position,” Habeeb said. “If the attorney general won’t do his job and the governor won’t appoint somebody … someone’s got to step in and do it.”

Under the current Code of Virginia, Herring has a certain category of cases he is supposed to defend, Habeeb said. If Herring chooses, or is unable to fulfill that duty, then the governor needs to appoint someone who can, Habeeb said.

What is not clear in the current law, Habeeb said, is what happens if the attorney general recuses himself, and the governor refuses to appoint counsel.

HB706 passed the House on a 65-32 vote Feb. 3 and is awaiting action by the Senate.

Climate change activists march on Virginia Capitol

More than 70 activists descended on the Virginia Capitol this past week, calling on Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to take a more aggressive stance against climate change.

The event was organized in conjunction with Virginia Conservation Network Lobby Day by Appalachian Voice Environment Virginia, the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter and the Virginia Conservation Network.

Carrying miniature windmills and large posters, the activists began their march on Seventh and E. Grace streets in downtown Richmond. Before circling the rest of Capitol Square, the marchers briefly paused outside of the governor’s mansion to sing a rendition of the French nursery song “Frère Jacques,” with alternate lyrics calling for less carbon emissions.

During his gubernatorial campaign, McAuliffe acknowledged global warming as a scientific reality. Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter said he’s hopeful the governor will do more to curb carbon emissions.

“We’re excited to have a governor who understands that climate change is real. We’re out here today to encourage him to take action,” Besa said. “The governor has a lot of authority over the kind of energy that our state buildings use and whether our buildings are energy efficient.”

— Jackson McMillan, Capital News Service