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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.

Capital News Service

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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.

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Moody MS 8th-grader wins spell-off to capture pandemic edition of HCPS division-wide Spelling Bee

Ananya Nanduru clinched the 2021 title in the second round by correctly spelling “graticule,” the network of latitude and longitude lines on which a map is drawn.

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Ananya Nanduru of George H. Moody Middle School won a spell-off on January 26th to repeat as Henrico County Public Schools’ Division-wide Spelling Bee champion. The eighth-grader bested Hollie Kim, an L. Douglas Wilder Middle School sixth-grader, to win the tiebreaker, held virtually. Nanduru clinched the 2021 title in the second round by correctly spelling “graticule,” the network of latitude and longitude lines on which a map is drawn.

The winner was presented with the HCPS spelling trophy at Moody Middle School Tuesday afternoon by school division representatives, including Marcie Shea, School Board vice-chair and Tuckahoe District representative, and Amy Cashwell, superintendent. Nanduru’s is the third Moody Middle School championship in as many years. That means the trophy, which resides at the winning school, will remain on display at Moody. The award was made possible by a donation from four-time Henrico spelling champion Tejas Muthusamy, a former Moody student now at Maggie Walker Governor’s School. The Henrico Education Foundation had the trophy made.

Ordinarily, spelling champions from HCPS’ 46 elementary schools and 12 middle schools gather onstage at a middle school auditorium to determine the annual champion. Because of the pandemic, this year’s 58 school champions each took an online spelling test provided by Scripps, the media company that coordinates the national bee. Each was required to complete the test within a 15-minute window. When those results were tabulated, Nanduru and Kim had identical scores, and advanced to the virtual video spell-off.

Nanduru moves on to represent Henrico County Public Schools on March 15th in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Regional Spelling Bee, which will also be held virtually. The regional winner will advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is held in late May and televised by ESPN.

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RPD seeking public’s assistance in identifying man found dead near Bandy Field and U of R

At approximately 7:06 a.m. on Sunday, January 24, an unknown deceased male with no form of identification was found in the 6700 block of Three Chopt Road. No foul play is suspected.

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From Richmond Police:

Richmond Police detectives are asking for the public’s help in identifying a male who was found early Sunday morning.

At approximately 7:06 a.m. on Sunday, January 24, an unknown deceased male with no form of identification was found in the 6700 block of Three Chopt Road. No foul play is suspected.

The male is described as a white male in his late teens or early twenties with hazel eyes, dark hair, and a slim build. He was wearing a tan long sleeve shirt with a distinctive design on the front of the shirt, grey sweatpants, grey shoes with green on them and had a tan backpack. Photos of the clothing are attached.

Anyone with information to assist in this investigation is asked to call Major Crimes Detective N. Reese at (804) 510-4183 or Crime Stoppers at 780-1000.

Photos of the deceased man’s clothing and apparel are below.

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Arrest made in Arthur Ashe Boulevard hotel homicide that occurred in 2020

Marquise McCormick was incarcerated in Chesterfield County on unrelated charges. Last week, he was charged with first degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony in relation to the Richmond homicide.

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From Richmond Police:

Richmond Police detectives have made an arrest in last summer’s homicide on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

Marquise McCormick was incarcerated in Chesterfield County on unrelated charges. Last week, he was charged with first degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony in relation to the Richmond homicide.

At approximately 1:43 a.m., Tuesday, June 2nd, RPD officers were called to the Rodeway Inn in the 3200 block of N. Arthur Ashe Boulevard for a report of a person shot. They quickly located a victim, Jermaine Stroman lying in a third floor hallway. He had been shot. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Anyone with information about this homicide is asked to contact Detective G. Bailey at (804) 646-6743 or Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000 or www.7801000.com or the P3 smartphone app. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.

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