RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Senate Democrats rejected a legislative priority for new Attorney General Jason Miyares that would have given him the authority to prosecute certain violent crimes against children if requested by local law enforcement.
The Virginia Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday voted 8-7 to kill the bill backed by Miyares and introduced by state Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover) that would have expanded the attorney general’s powers to investigate local sex crimes involving minors if a sheriff or police chief makes a formal request.
Virginia’s attorney general is allowed to prosecute certain local crime cases, including those involving the election process and child pornography, and in cases where the governor makes a formal request. McDougle said the bill would have expanded the list of crimes the attorney general can investigate without the governor’s authority to include sex crimes against minors, such as rape and carnal knowledge of a child.
Representatives from the Virginia Association of Commonwealths Attorneys, a bipartisan group of local prosecutors, and the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers both opposed the bill to the surprise of lawmakers on the committee.
“This is a solution in search of a problem. It is a bill whose real motives are demonstrated by the original content of the bill and by the attorney general’s public statements,” Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi told the panel. “It is, in short, even in its amended version, a vendetta that is being prosecuted through legislation.”
The push to expand the attorney general’s authority on local criminal cases was a key campaign promise from Miyares, who framed the role as Virginia’s “top cop” during the election cycle.
The original Senate bill called for the attorney general to more authority over local cases, but McDougle changed the measure to apply only to sex crimes involving minors.
Democrats on the panel questioned Rusty McGuire, the Republican commonwealth’s attorney in Louisa County who spoke in support of the bill, on why he backed the measure. McGuire said certain jurisdictions with limited resources could use the attorney general office’s help when it comes to child sex crime cases.
Democratic senators argued the bill would give Miyares the power to overrule local prosecutors and step in on their investigations without their approval. They added that the attorney general’s office already can volunteer to help local investigations.
One Democrat, state Sen. Chap Petersen (Fairfax City), voted with Republicans when a motion to kill the bill went before the committee. Petersen spoke about a case in Fairfax County where a prosecutor made a proposed plea deal for an alleged child rapist to serve three years, calling it “extraordinarily lenient.” The judge overseeing the case agreed and rejected the plea agreement.
In the end, the bill failed to get through on a 8-7 vote. Miyares’ bill in the House of Delegates, carried by Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), has not been heard in committee but it is expected to pass in the Republican-controlled chamber.
“I’m thrilled that my bill for concurrent jurisdiction on child rape cases received bipartisan support among members of the General Assembly and Commonwealth’s Attorneys. We are hopeful that the house bill will move forward and we hope that additional senators will take note of the overwhelming law enforcement support and join us as well,” Miyares said in a statement Thursday.
“This bill is about making sure the most vulnerable victims are not overlooked, ignored or fall through the cracks. I will never stop fighting for justice for victims and victims’ rights.”
The Virginia State Police Association and the Virginia Police Benevolent Association also supported Miyares’ legislative effort.
The House bill would still need to go through the Virginia Senate committee that killed the bill on Wednesday.