Virginia Senate Moves Forward With Chokehold Restrictions

Council members pass an ordinance to allow data sharing despite public outcry

By Brian Carlton

October 3, 2020

Bill bans practice for law enforcement, except in extreme circumstances

RICHMOND-Chokeholds will soon be a thing of the past in Virginia. On Friday, the Senate passed a bill nearly banning the practice for all law enforcement officers.

“We’ve seen the George Floyd tragedy,” said Sen. John Edwards (D-Roanoke City). “This prohibits neck restraints except in extreme circumstances.” 

HB5069, which previously passed the House, spells out what those extreme circumstances are. The only time a law enforcement officer can use a chokehold is when “such use is immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person.” 

There was some debate Friday about what immediately means. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “at once or instantly” and Edwards said that’s the interpretation being used here. If an officer’s life is in immediate danger, then they’re allowed to use a chokehold. If someone else is being immediately threatened at the scene, officers can use chokeholds then too. Otherwise, the bill bans the practice in police departments throughout the Commonwealth. 

The bill also hands down penalties for any officer that doesn’t follow the rules. 

“Any officer who knowingly violates this section shall be subject to disciplinary action,” the bill states. “[That includes] dismissal, demotion, suspension, or transfer of the officer, or decertification as provided elsewhere in the Code.” 

Chokehold ban doesn’t take effect yet

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D-Prince William) filed the bill after the death of George Floyd earlier this year. Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed the 46-year-old Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while trying to make an arrest. Floyd stood accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill in a nearby store in the city. His death triggered protests about police brutality across the country, including here in Richmond. 

It’ll take one more thing before the bill gets signed into law. There’s still one change that has to be hammered out. The House version of the bill is slightly different from what the Senate passed Friday. 

“The House approach was to make chokeholds by law enforcement officers a separate felony under the Code,” said Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Eastern Fairfax County). “The approach we adopted was to simply prohibit police officers from doing it but not to make it a separate crime.” 

Surovell argued there was no need to create a new felony charge, as any officer accused of using a chokehold would fall under the same rules as anyone else. In 2012, the General Assembly made strangulation a felony under Virginia Code 18.2-51.6. Basically, strangling someone else is already illegal, Surovell pointed out. Law enforcement officers would just fall under those same restrictions now. 

Because the House and Senate versions are different, now the bill goes to conference. The conference committee includes House and Senate members, who agree to a final version of any disputed bill. Once they finalize the language, it’ll go to be signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam. 

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