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Crime

Activists say bill ending police stops for pot odor is ‘small step’ for marginalized communities

The state Senate approved a bill Friday that would prohibit search and seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana. Activists say this is a small step toward ending adverse enforcement against marginalized communities.

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By Andrew Ringle

The state Senate approved a bill Friday that would prohibit search and seizures based solely on the odor of marijuana. Activists say this is a small step toward ending adverse enforcement against marginalized communities.

Senate Bill 5029, introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, passed with a 21-15 vote.

Chelsea Higgs Wise, executive director of Marijuana Justice, a nonprofit pushing for the statewide legalization of marijuana, said her group is excited to see the bill move forward.

“This is a small but important step to decriminalizing Black and brown bodies of being targeted by this longtime policing tool, which was really created by politicizing the war on drugs,” Higgs Wise said.

Black people are more than three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Virginia compared to white people, according to 2018 data from the ACLU. Even after marijuana was decriminalized in July, Higgs Wise said police stops initiated on the smell of marijuana continue to adversely affect minority groups.

“The odor of marijuana is something that our undocumented community is anxious about because it’s life or death and separation from their families,” Higgs Wise said.

Higgs Wise said there is still “a long way to go” before demands for full marijuana legalization are met, but right now she wants legislators to focus on ending the enforcement of remaining marijuana-related penalties.

Marijuana decriminalization legislation approved by the General Assembly earlier this year went into effect in July. Possession of up to an ounce of marijuana results in a $25 civil penalty, reduced from a $500 criminal fine and 30 days in jail for having up to half an ounce.

Higgs Wise said true reform goes further; clearing records, releasing people jailed for marijuana offenses and eliminating the $25 fine.

“All of that has to stop to meet the full demand of legalization and fully, truly decriminalizing marijuana and Black and brown bodies in the eyes of the police,” Higgs Wise said.

Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Dana Schrad said the organization opposes the bill.

“Enacting this type of legislation allows and promotes smoking of marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, which is a fundamental disregard for maintaining a safe driving environment for motorists,” Schrad said in an email.

Other amendments in the bill reduce certain traffic violations from primary to secondary offenses, which Schrad said could make it difficult for officers to issue citations on the road and creates risks for other drivers.

The bill, and another in the House, reduce other traffic penalties from primary to secondary offenses, such as driving with tinted windows or without a light illuminating the vehicle’s license plate.

Claire Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU Virginia, said police have “gotten comfortable” with using the smell of marijuana as a pretext to stop and frisk.

“Occasionally, they’ll find evidence doing that of some other criminal activity, but many times they don’t,” Gastañaga said. “As a consequence, it provides an excuse for essentially over-policing people who have done nothing wrong.”

Gastañaga said the end of the overcriminalization of Black and brown people will come after legislators legalize marijuana and commit to reinvesting equitably in those communities. A resolution approved by the General Assembly earlier in the year directed the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to study and make recommendations for how the commonwealth should legalize marijuana by 2022.

Gastañaga said SB 5029 sends a strong message to the police and the public.

“This would take [away] that pretextual tool for police stopping people on the street, or for demanding to search a vehicle,” Gastañaga said.

The bill needs approval from the House of Delegates and a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam before it can become law, which would take effect four months after the special session adjourns.

House Bill 5058 similarly aims to end police searches based on the odor of marijuana. The bill, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, reported Wednesday from the House Courts of Justice committee by a vote of 13-7.

“A disproportionate number of people pulled over for minor traffic offenses tend to be people of color,” Hope said during the committee meeting on Wednesday. “This is a contributor to the higher incarceration rate among minorities.”

Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said during Wednesday’s meeting that when people feel they are being targeted by the police, they’re less likely to report crimes or act as witnesses in prosecutions. He said ending such traffic stops is necessary to reform the criminal justice system and make communities safer.

“Reforming our criminal justice system means bringing back legitimacy to it,” Descano said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

Community

Richmond Police Officer Arrested Charged with Rape and Aggravated Sexual Battery

Yesterday Richmond Police Officer Jean Assad was arrested after the Multi-Jurisdictional Grand Jury issued two true bills of indictment for two felony charges.

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From RPD:

Yesterday Richmond Police Officer Jean Assad was arrested after the Multi-Jurisdictional Grand Jury issued two true bills of indictment for the following felony charges: 1) one count of Rape and 2) one count of Aggravated Sexual Battery.

Presently, Assad is being held without bond. His arraignment is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. Friday morning in Richmond Circuit Court.

Assad has been with the Richmond Police Department since June 2017.

Assad remains in a leave without pay status as the Department continues its administrative process.

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We need your help. RVAHub is a small, independent publication, and we depend on our readers to help us provide a vital community service. If you enjoy our content, would you consider a donation as small as $5? We would be immensely grateful! Interested in advertising your business, organization, or event? Get the details here.

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Crime

Richmond Police identify 83-year-old victim struck and killed by vehicle outside Libbie Market

The driver of the vehicle, an adult male, remained on scene.

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From Richmond Police:

The Richmond Police Crash Team has identified the individual who died after being injured in a collision in a parking lot on Libbie Avenue as John Busch, 83, of Richmond.

At approximately 8:15 a.m., officers were called to the 400 block of Libbie Avenue, in the parking lot of Libbie Market, for the report of a person struck by a vehicle. Officers arrived and found a male, Busch, down and injured in the parking lot of a business after having been struck by a vehicle in the lot. He was transported to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injury.

The driver of the vehicle, an adult male, remained on scene.

The RPD Crash Team responded to the scene and interviewed the driver and witnesses. The investigation is ongoing. Investigators have not placed charges at this time.

Anyone with further information about this collision is asked to contact RPD Crash Team Sergeant D. Cuffley at (804) 646-3135.

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Crime

New VCU study directly connects derelict properties to risk of violence in Richmond neighborhoods

Negligent landlords — those who allow their properties to become dilapidated despite having tenants — are a significant predictor of violence in Richmond neighborhoods, even more than personal property tax delinquency, population density, income levels and other factors, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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By Brian McNeill, VCU News

Negligent landlords — those who allow their properties to become dilapidated despite having tenants — are a significant predictor of violence in Richmond neighborhoods, even more than personal property tax delinquency, population density, income levels and other factors, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Negligent landlords contribute significantly to violence in Richmond neighborhoods via the environment,” said lead author Samuel West, Ph.D., an alum of the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and an assistant professor of psychology at Virginia State University. “This impact was above and beyond the impact of those who live in these neighborhoods in terms of the state of their respective properties.”

West and other researchers at VCU collected data on violence events, tax delinquency of company-owned properties (such as rental homes and apartments), tax delinquency of personal properties, population density, race, income, food stamps and alcohol outlets for each of Richmond’s 148 neighborhoods.

Tax delinquency of company-owned properties was the only variable that predicted violence in all but four of Richmond’s 148 neighborhoods.

The researchers replicated the analysis using violence data for a different time period and found the same result.

“The key finding here was that the company delinquency was a stronger or more important correlate of violence than personal delinquency,” said West, who initiated the project while serving as a postdoctoral researcher with the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at VCU Health.

The study, “Comparing Forms of Neighborhood Instability as Predictors of Violence in Richmond, VA,” was published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.

In addition to West, the study was authored by Diane L. Bishop, an instructor in the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health in the School of Medicine; Derek Chapman, Ph.D., interim director for research at the VCU Center on Society and Health and an assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health; and Nicholas Thomson, Ph.D., director of research for the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at VCU Health Trauma Center.

The findings are consistent with previous research that suggests “slumlord buyout programs” are tied to reduced violence in cities, West said. For example, a program in Philadelphia purchased neglected properties in the East Liberty neighborhood and provided them to community residents to renovate and rehabilitate. It led to a decline in violence over a sustained period of time, West said.

“Although we acknowledge this would be a massive effort, the data do support the use of such programs to curb violence among other social difficulties,” West said. “I believe that Richmond is a perfect place to attempt a program like this at a larger scale than was done in Philadelphia (i.e., a single neighborhood).”

There are no laws in Virginia protecting tenants from eviction if their landlord loses their rental property to state property auction, West said. In Richmond, along with most medium to large cities, delinquent properties are seized and auctioned off to recoup costs, he said.

“When this happens, the winners of the auction are typically given carte blanche to decide what to do with the tenants as they no longer have a valid contractual agreement,” he said. “This aspect greatly endangers the residential stability of our neighborhoods.”

West was inspired to explore this topic through his observation of dilapidated buildings next to new construction in Richmond.

“Given the preponderance of real estate development and the aggressive housing market in Richmond, it seemed important to better understand how these seemingly inane facets of our society may impact some of our deepest problems,” he said.

The researchers hope their findings will contribute to a growing perspective by scholars that research should break away from the traditional view that members of a community hold the majority of the blame for violence that occurs there.

“Our work, along with other recent research, emphasizes that we need to be examining and addressing the impacts of forces from outside high-violence communities that carry such major consequences,” West said.

He added, however, that individual autonomy might also be considered a key factor.

“Social psychologists place a major emphasis on autonomy as a psychological need. In the case of a negligent landlord, the tenant(s) may live in a constant state of highly salient violations of their own autonomy which may further undermine attempts to improve the conditions of their own communities,” he said. “As evinced by the East Liberty project from Philadelphia, when this autonomy is restored, it is used in a productive fashion such that it improves the quality of life and safety of all in their communities through restoring their collective efficacy.”

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