On January 19, 2018, Delegate Marcia “Cia” Price (D-Newport News), Virginia House of Delegates, and the State’s Office of Attorney General proposed House Bill 1601 (HB 1601) which defines “domestic terrorism” and recommends the establishment of a “domestic terrorist group list.”
If passed into law, the bill would provide another legal tool to combat domestic terrorism. It suggests a mandatory life sentence (with no sentencing reduction) for any domestic terrorist committing two or more separate acts of violence. It is partially mirrored after the state’s laws against gang participation and perpetration of a hate crime.
Michael Kelly, a spokesperson for Virginia’s Office of Attorney General, said the genesis of the bill emanated from the violent aftermath of the August 12, 2017, racist “alt-right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. On that day, violence erupted between white nationalists and counter protesters resulting in several injuries and subsequent arrests. Later that day, Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, was killed when James Alex Fields, Jr., reportedly drove his vehicle deliberately into a crowd of demonstrators. Field has been charged with first-degree murder in Heyer’s death.
The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the new bill citing civil liberties and government abuse concerns. In contrast, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supports the bill at the national, state, and local level. The NAACP called the bill “innovative” and “timely.”
“The majority of Virginians despise these groups, but feel powerless to do anything about them because the groups have been allowed to hide behind the label of ‘hate groups’, instead of calling them out as what they are: terrorist organizations,” stated Kofi Annan, President of the Fairfax County NAACP. “This is nothing short of another manifestation of white privilege in our justice system and it’s time we put an end to it. This could be a watershed moment for Virginia and precedent-setting for the rest of the country.”
HB 1601 defines an act of domestic terrorism as “an act of violence committed against a person or his property with the intent of instilling fear or intimidation in the individual against whom the act is perpetrated because of race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, or that is committed against such person for the purpose of restraining that person from exercising his rights under the Constitution or laws of this Commonwealth or of the United States.”
The Virginia bill provides a definition of “violent act,” a provision for providing material support to domestic terrorists, and civil liabilities for acts of domestic terrorism. It defines a violent act by referring to over 30 existing laws covering a wide-range of violent crimes including murder, assault, mob-related violence, kidnapping/abduction, bomb threats; shootings, stabbings, bombings, arson, among other criminal violations.
A particularly progressive, and controversial, part of the bill concerns the creation of a domestic terrorist group list. According to the bill, a domestic terrorist organization is defined as “any organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, which has an identifiable name or identifying sign or symbol and either (i) has as one of its primary objectives or activities an act of domestic terrorism; or (ii) whose members individually or collectively have engaged in the commission of, attempt to commit, conspiracy to commit, or solicitation of two or more acts of domestic terrorism, provided such acts were not part of a common act or transaction.”
The bill suggests the Superintendent of the Virginia State Police (VSP) would be responsible for the creation and maintenance of the group list. The list would be updated annually and provide the names of all organizations, groups, or associations that meet the domestic terrorist organization definition. The group list would be published in the Virginia Register of Regulations annually. There is also a provision for designated domestic terrorist organizations to seek a judicial review from the Circuit Court of Virginia in Richmond within 30 days of the group list’s publication in the Virginia Register of Regulations. They can further petition the VSP Superintendent on an annual basis to request revocation of the designation. The Superintendent has the authority to designate and revote organizations on the group list.
The bill also features a prohibition of assembly of domestic terrorist organizations. The bill would make it unlawful for a domestic terrorist organization to assemble or meet “with the intent of advancing some unlawful goal, mission, or purpose of the domestic terrorist organization.” Anyone participating in such an unlawful assembly would be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. If the person attended the assembly or meeting carrying a firearm, they would be guilty of a Class 5 felony.
Finally, HB 1601 requests that State, county and municipal law enforcement agencies report acts of domestic terrorism occurring within their jurisdictions to the VSP. The VSP Superintendent should prescribe the manner, form, and time frame of the reporting. These reports would not be publicly available unless permitted by the Superintendent.
Virginia’s attempt at passing a domestic terrorism law coincides with other legislative efforts in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Despite these recent efforts, the federal government has been slow with recommending any new or revised legislation relating to domestic terrorism. The domestic terrorist threat has grown in both size and activity since 2008. As a result, Virginia has taken its own initiative to address this increasingly dangerous problem. HB 1601 will certainly face opposition and legal challenges from those concerned about government encroachment, privacy, and civil rights. But, it’s certainly a worthwhile cause and an honest attempt to do what’s right for Virginians. At this time, any legislative reform to address the growing threat of domestic terrorism is very much welcomed, appreciated, and needed.