A new slate of state laws took effect in Virginia on July 1 as the Commonwealth observed the beginning of a new fiscal year.
While these laws primarily stem from bills introduced and adopted by the Virginia General Assembly, one of the most significant legislative changes from the 2019 session came out of Gov. Ralph Northam’s state budget amendments.
Starting on July 1, Virginians will no longer have their driver’s licenses suspended due to a failure to pay court fines and fees, and people whose licenses were suspended for not paying court fines earlier have had their driving privileges restored, a policy shift that affects more than 600,000 individuals.
“A driver’s license is critical to daily life, including a person’s ability to maintain a job,” Northam said when announcing the budget amendment. “Eliminating a process that envelops hundreds of thousands of Virginians in a counterproductive cycle is not only fair, it’s also the right thing to do.”
The measure was initially proposed on Jan. 9 by State Sen. William Stanley Jr. (R-20th) as a Senate bill that would have repealed the existing requirement that a person convicted of a legal violation have their driver’s license suspended if they are unable to immediately pay court fines or costs.
S.B. 1013 also would have removed a provision letting courts require defendants to present a Department of Motor Vehicles summary outlining other courts where they owe money and required that the DMV commissioner return or reinstate any driver’s license suspended solely for an inability to pay fines prior to July 1.
The Senate passed Stanley’s bill on Jan. 25 by a 36-4 vote, but the legislation died in the House of Delegates’ Courts of Justice committee after a subcommittee recommended passing it by indefinitely on Feb. 11.
Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, a nonpartisan citizens’ advocacy organization, praised the reinstatement of suspended driver’s licenses as a victory for bipartisan criminal justice reform.
“This practice effectively denied people driver’s licenses simply for being poor and, as often is the case, people of color,” First Baptist Church of Manassas Pastor Rev. Dr. Keith Savage said. “This issue affects thousands of people in our congregations and communities. We see the impact every day.”
Importantly, the restoration of driver’s licenses does not eliminate fines or fees that individuals owe to the courts, and because the action was implemented part of the budget rather than as an official law, the state’s termination of fine-induced license suspensions lasts only until the end of the new fiscal year, which concludes on June 30, 2020.
The General Assembly will have to pass legislation before then in order to make the policy change permanent.
A lawsuit challenging Virginia’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay court fines has been ongoing since 2016, when the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firm McGuireWoods LLP challenged the law’s constitutionality.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and DMV Commissioner Richard Holcomb argued that the July 1 freeze on license suspensions instituted by the new budget rendered the case moot.
U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon denied the state’s request for dismissal on June 28 but postponed trial in the case to give the General Assembly time to adopt legislation.
“The plaintiffs would have preferred to have their day in court this August and end this civil rights crisis permanently,” Legal Aid Justice Center executive director Angela Ciolfi said. “But if the Commonwealth will not take responsibility for decades of violating people’s constitutional rights, we will continue to fight in the General Assembly to fix it for the future.”
Here are some of the notable laws that have newly taken effect in Virginia:
Smoking age goes to 21. The minimum age for buying tobacco products, including cigarettes and vape products, has increased from 18 to 21, with an exception for active-duty military personnel, who can still purchase tobacco when they turn 18. The law also requires that vending machines selling tobacco products be located in places “not generally accessible to persons under 21 years of age.”
Happy hour advertising lets loose. After facing a lawsuit from restauranteur Geoff Tracy, who operates Chef Geoff’s in D.C. and Tysons Corner, Virginia legislators voted to relax the state’s regulations on the advertisement of happy-hour discounts. Licensed bars and restaurants can now promote their alcohol prices and use “creative marketing techniques” as long as they “do not tend to induce overconsumption or consumption by minors.”
Seclusion and restraint draws scrutiny. The Virginia Board of Education has been tasked with identifying and prohibiting the use of restraint or seclusion methods in public schools that it determines pose significant danger to the student. The board is also required to establish safety standards for seclusion. WAMU reported in March that Fairfax County Public Schools regularly restrains and isolates students, controversial discipline practices that particularly affect students with disabilities, but the district did not follow federal reporting requirements for those incidents.
Naloxone gets wider distribution. Health care providers in hospital emergency departments and emergency medical services personnel can now dispense naloxone, an emergency medication that reverses an opioid overdose. School nurses and local health department employees or other individuals contracted by a school board to provide school health services in public schools can also possess and administer naloxone as long as they have completed a training program.
Autism health coverage expands. Health insurers, health care subscription plans, and health maintenance organizations must provide coverage for the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder for all individuals. Previously, Virginia only required coverage for children from age 2 through 10. The elimination of the age cut-off applies to all insurance policies and healthcare plans delivered, issued, or extended on or after Jan. 1, 2020.
Consent becomes mandatory. High school family life education curricula offered by local public school divisions must incorporate age-appropriate material on the law and meaning of consent in relation to sexual activity. Before the adoption of Del. Eileen Filler-Corn’s bill (D-41st), education on consent was permitted in public high schools but not required.
Virginia cracks down on silencing of sexual assault claims. Legislation introduced by Del. Karrie Delaney (D-67th) prohibits employers from forcing current or prospective employees to sign a nondisclosure or confidentiality agreement obscuring details related to a claim of sexual assault as a condition of employment.
School years can start two weeks before Labor Day. After years of requiring public school districts to start after Labor Day except in cases where a waiver had been granted, Virginia has moved the timeline back so that school boards can set a start date up to 14 days before Labor Day. Districts that start the year before Labor Day must now include a break for all schools from the Friday preceding Labor Day through the holiday itself. FCPS has set Aug. 26 as the first day of school for the 2019-2020 academic year.
Alpacas are livestock. The woolly, long-necked mammal has been added to the definition of “livestock” under Virginia’s domestic animals law, which previously included llamas but not alpacas.