Three Interesting Bills: Selling Children, ‘Swatting’ Penalties and Regulating Vape Products

The Virginia General Assembly convened for its 2023 session in Richmond Jan. 11, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

By Meghan McIntire, Virginia Mercury

February 27, 2023

Hundreds of bills are filed for General Assembly consideration each year. In this occasional series, the Virginia Mercury takes a look at a few of the proposals that might not otherwise make headlines during the whirlwind legislative session.

by Meghan McIntyre, Virginia Mercury

House Bill 1669: Creating a felony charge for purchasing or selling children

This bill from Del. Mike Cherry, R-Colonial Heights, would create a Class 5 felony for attempting to gain control or custody of a child by purchasing them. This would also apply to parents or legal guardians who sell their child.

There is no law in Virginia to penalize people buying children, which an undercover police officer in Colonial Heights discovered after a person contacted him on Craigslist looking to buy a 14-year-old girl, said Cherry during a House subcommittee meeting late last month. 

“Virginia doesnt want people selling their children on Craigslist. This is the fix for it,” said Colonial Heights Commonwealth’s Attorney Gray Collins. 

Some panel members were surprised to hear selling children wasn’t already illegal in the commonwealth.

“If I acted up as a child, my mother would threaten things like this, and I assumed it was a crime,” said Del. Les Adams, R-Pittsylvania.

An attorney on the panel emphasized that people who jokingly say they’re going to sell their child would not be prosecuted under this bill.

“But if she takes you in the car and drives you to her friend’s house and gets money, that’s when this statute would kick in,” he said.

Currently, a person selling a child can only be found guilty of a crime if they intend to do something harmful to the child who is being sold, like using him or her to solicit sex.

The bill passed both chambers with only one opposing vote from Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax.

Senate Bill 1291 and House Bill 1572: Strengthening penalties for ‘swatting’

Identical bills from Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, and Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, would strengthen penalties for calling in a false threat to 911 with the intent of drawing a large police response to the location – also known as “swatting.”

Current law only finds a person guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor if they call emergency services directly with false information. Deeds and Walker’s legislation would extend this penalty to a person who calls somewhere else, like a school, which then reports the emergency to 911.

“I had a middle school child in Charlottesville that came to me and was basically crying in my office,” Deeds said during a committee hearing late last month. “She was in a closet with a bunch of other students. The school had been called that there was an active shooter there, but there wasn’t an active shooter there.”

The legislation would also add felony charges if a person suffers serious bodily injuries or is killed as a direct result of the false emergency claim.

A spokesperson with the Arlington Police Department said the felony charges are important “because swatting is often done not just as a prank, but with the intent to hurt somebody, with the intent to send a SWAT team to a place and hoping that something bad happens.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said she’s seen firsthand the trauma and anxiety active shooter drills cause among children.

“But when it’s not a drill and the people that they usually look to for some indication that they’re gonna be fine are also terrified, that adds another level of trauma to those kids,” she said.  

The bills passed both chambers with minor opposition.

House Bill 2296: Study on regulating liquid nicotine and reducing underage sales 

HB 2296 from Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, would direct the Secretary of Finance to study and report on methods to regulate the sale of nicotine liquid vapor products and reduce underage sales of nicotine. 

The issue was brought to Hope by the Virginia Smoke Free Association, which voiced concerns over the increase of nicotine vapor products being sold to underaged people over the last few years. 

“It’s not more of a question of if we should do it, it’s more of a question of how we should do it,” Hope said during a House subcommittee meeting late last month. 

The bill would also ask the secretariat to submit a report on how the methods could be enforced and which governing body would oversee their implementation to the state’s finance and appropriations committees by Nov. 1 of this year. 

Attorney General Jason Miyares echoed similar concerns over youth vaping late last year in a press release about Virginia receiving $16 million in a lawsuit against the e-cigarette manufacturer JUUL after an investigation found products had deliberately been advertised to underaged users. 

“Youth vaping is an epidemic,” said Miyares. “My office will continue to go after and hold accountable companies that market addictive products like e-cigarettes to minors, with no concern for their health or well-being.”

The bill passed both chambers with little opposition.

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