Virginia may raise felony threshold for first time since 1980

If a Virginian stole a Commodore Vic-20 computer in 1980, he or she would face up to 20 years in prison. Today, stealing a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses could have the same result.

After years of effort to increase the $200 threshold at which theft becomes a felony — long a Democratic priority that has won Republican support in the state Senate — even some longtime skeptics think this might be the year that compromise will carry something through.

At the moment, a Republican’s bill has the momentum. State Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, convinced the Senate Courts of Justice Committee to go with the lowest new threshold figure — $500 — that any legislator is proposing, but would apply that to a broader range of property crimes than have ever been approved by the Senate.

Virginia and New Jersey are the only states where someone can be convicted of felony theft if he or she steals something valued at more than $200, according to a report from the Virginia Crime Commission. Thirty-nine states have thresholds of $500 or more.

No increase in the felony threshold has emerged from the House Courts of Justice Committee since at least 1999, according to online bill records.

This year, though, there are seven House bills seeking to increase the threshold — and they’re in the Rules Committee, at the direction of Speaker of the House Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights.

That has the sponsors of these bills wondering what’s going on, especially since raising the threshold to $1,000 is a priority of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. The traditional expectation is that when a bill goes to the Rules Committee, with its 11-6 Republican majority, it goes there to die.

“The odd balance in sending these bills to Rules instead of Courts is kind of a big question mark for most of us,” said Del. Steve Heretick, D-Portsmouth, who has proposed a $1,000 threshold.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield, who is carrying the bill for Northam, is more hopeful, based on what Cox has said he wants the Rules Committee to look like this year. She’s got a back-up bill, proposing a $500 threshold, as does Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington.

“The speaker indicated that he wanted the Rules Committee to be more substantive and be more of a policy committee,” Filler-Corn said. “I’m going on that, and I’m hopeful that's exactly what happens.”

Del. Cliff Hayes, D-Chesapeake, who has proposed increasing the threshold to $750, has received no information on what the Rules Committee shift means, but he intends to find out.

“I do plan on reaching out to the Rules folks to see what is exactly going on there,” Hayes said.

For years, proponents of changing the law argue that things cost more these days. They cite the inflation rate; according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $200 in 1980 is the same as about $633 today.

Some of the same lawmakers who have proposed bills this year have tried before, and failed, like Filler-Corn and Heretick.

“Now you steal a pair of sneakers, you steal an iPhone, you do stupid things when you're young,” and a felony is on your record, said Heretick.

There is still a lot of opposition among Republicans to raising the threshold — “giving criminals a cost of living adjustment,” as House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, puts it. Gilbert is also on the Rules Committee.

He isn’t comfortable with simply raising the trigger, but he’s been listening hard to other legislators, and thinks there may be a way forward by linking a change to the trigger to other criminal justice reforms, such as beefing up state law requiring that offenders pay restitution to victims.

By moving the threshold bills to Rules, Gilbert thinks there is a possibility to get a conversation going. And he says that’s why bills to raise the felony threshold are, unusually, sitting in the Rules Committee.

Bills to increase the threshold didn’t start passing through the Senate until 2015. That year, a proposal from state Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, to raise the threshold from $200 to $500 made it through his chamber, but died in the House of Delegates’ Courts of Justice Committee.

In 2016 and 2017, bills to raise the threshold to $500 passed through the Senate but could not make it out of the House.

Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, who supports increasing the threshold, proposed a bump to $500 back in 1999 when he was a Midlothian delegate. That faced the axe in House Courts of Justice committee. The next year, he dialed it down in a new bill: raise it from $200 to $300. Members of the Courts of Justice committee unanimously agreed not to consider it.

This initiative has sparked several bills, including one from Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News. His would say, for the first time, that there is no statute of limitations on enforcement of a court order to pay restitution. House Courts committee Chairman Rob Bell, R-Albemarle County, has several more.

On Friday, Mullin appeared as the co-sponsor on a freshly filed bill that would increase the felony larceny threshold to $500 and apply it to certain property crimes, but maintains the $200 level if someone steals with the intent to sell or distribute.

Mullin said it addresses his big concern with lowering the threshold — the way gangs of thieves will join forces, with each gang member stealing just enough to stay under the $200 threshold.

"I see this all the time as a prosecutor," he said. "You have a gang go into a Target, grab all the inexpensive cellphones, the ones that aren't locked away, and walk out. They wipe out the store ... they're taking $100, $150 phones and then selling them."

The bill — which had not been moved to a committee as of Friday — is sponsored by Del. Les R. Adams, R-Chatham. Del. Christopher Collins, R-Winchester, joined Mullin as a co-sponsor.

Collins has a bill in the Rules Committee that proposes a sentence reduction for first offenders rather than a threshold increase. His bill suggests first offenders who steal more than $200 but less than $1,000 worth of goods can be placed on probation, with their conviction reduced to a misdemeanor if they complete probation successfully.

Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, also has a bill in Rules that would allow first offenders to pay a restitution fee within 60 days of the theft that would be twice the value of the property they stole, as long as it’s valued between $200 and $1000. They would then be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor, which is subject to up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

These are the first to try this approach for larceny first offenders since Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. “Tommy” Norment’s 2002 effort died in the House Courts committee. At their surface, they sound like the kind of bills that Del. Hayes “can begin to discuss.”

“The whole spirit of what I’m after is not tagging people with felonies,” Hayes said. “A felony carries so much burden on an individual. We're not interested in anything that's going to ruin someone's opportunity for doing better in life.”

State Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Montross, who voted against Suetterlein’s bill, said he likes the idea of giving first offenders a break.

“Kids can do some dumb things,” he said.

Norment is proposing a similar approach for first offenders on simple possession of marijuana.

Moving the threshold and first offender bills to Rules, instead of their usual destination at the Courts committee, is the work of Cox, the man who runs the House of Delegates.

After the Democratic wave in November, the Courts committee is split 12-10, with a Republican majority, after five law-and-order Republican members lost their elections or retired.

One of the new members on the panel, Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, is pushing to raise the threshold to $1,000. And Collins is a returning member of the committee. Reading how the Courts committee would jump, given that threshold bills last year died on voice votes in subcommittee, isn’t easy.

Suetterlein, the state Senator whose bill is moving through the Senate, thinks his more modest $500 trigger has a better chance, which would also be applied to a broad range of property crimes, including fire setting and damaging property, and credit card and check fraud — one of the most common crimes. His measure won the support of the Senate’s majority and minority leaders in the committee — Norment and state Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield — as well as Republican caucus chairman Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, co-chairman Mark Obenshain and whip Bill Stanley, R-Moneta.

“There’s still a pretty stiff penalty; it’s up to a year in jail and a fine of $2,500 — five times what you stole,” Suetterlein said.

“I think we have a good chance of getting something done ...The last time we increased it was five years before I was born.”

Ress can be reached by telephone at 757-247-4535

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette
50°