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Habitual offender repeal crosses over to House

A bill that reinstates the driving privileges of thousands of Virginians labeled as “habitual offenders” has been taken up by the House of Delegates.

Senate Bill 1122, sponsored by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, would repeal the remaining provisions of the Habitual Offenders Act and reinstate the driving privileges to those who lost their drivers licenses solely because of a violation under the Habitual Offenders Act.

The Habitual Offenders Act, which declared persons “habitual offenders” if they accumulated numerous traffic violations, was partially repealed in 1999. However, the repeal was not retroactive, leaving 32,000 people with habitual offender status presently. Those persons are subjected to harsh penalties, including mandatory minimum jail sentences for being caught driving without a license.

“That is patently unfair,” Stanley told the Senate on Jan. 25. “That is applying the law one way to one person you have labeled, than to another that commits the same offense.” Stanley urged the Senate to pass the bill, saying “it’s about time that we do this.”

Stanley’s proposal proved successful, as the bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support on Jan. 25. Five Republicans, including Stanley, joined all 21 Democrats in voting for the bill.

The bill previously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 10-4 vote on Jan. 18.  During debate on the bill, Stanley referred to the remaining provisions of the Habitual Offenders Act as “arcane.”

“We need to make a clean repeal of the habitual offender statute. We have taken care of that kind of behavior in other ways,” Stanley told the committee on Jan. 18.

The Legal Aid Justice Center spoke in support of the bill during the judiciary committee meeting. The organization’s website lists the bill on its legislative agenda.

“For more than two decades now, our criminal code is applied differently to 32,000 people under this Habitual Offender Act that you all repealed in ’99,” LAJC Director of Policy Amy Woolard said. “It’s been too long, but certainly long enough for the 32,000 people who still endure it.”

The bill was referred to the House Committee for Courts of Justice on Feb. 2. The committee has continued the bill for review at the special session later this month.