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Judge: ex-detective charged with crime that doesn’t exist

A former detective who admitted to altering multiple search warrants could not be prosecuted for malfeasance in office, as the charge is not a crime under Virginia law, a 12th Circuit Court judge has ruled.

Robert W. Sprouse, a now-former Chesterfield County detective, acknowledged after being confronted that he had modified seven search warrants to add required information he had initially failed to include, The Roanoke Times reported. Sprouse has since resigned his position.

The commonwealth charged Sprouse criminally with malfeasance in office, arguing that the offense was a crime in Virginia under common law.

Judge M. Duncan Minton Jr. found, however, that to accept the prosecution’s position on the offense “would result in several instances of absurdity and redundancy in the Code of Virginia.”

The commonwealth cited a 1923 case, Warren v. Commonwealth, in which an official was tried for “malfeasance, misfeasance, and neglect of office.”

But Minton noted that the Supreme Court of Virginia in Warren described the cause of action as “quasi criminal” and referred to the matter as “not a criminal case.”

The Supreme Court reiterated that position in its 2020 decision in Townes v. Virginia State Board of Elections, holding that “because removal proceedings are quasi-criminal in nature due to the high penalty they impose … the correct burden of proof is clear and convincing evidence,” Minton wrote.

The judge noted that the state Conflict of Interest Act (§§2.2-3102–2.2-3119) specifies in one subsection (§2.2-3120) criminal penalties for certain violations and provides in another (§2.2-3122) that a violation of the act “constitutes a malfeasance in office and subjects the offender to forfeiture of such office.”

“If malfeasance were, in and of itself, a criminal offense, then §2.2-3120 would be entirely redundant,” Minton wrote.

The judge similarly rejected the commonwealth’s attempts to look to the Virginia Constitution and to the Model Jury Instructions for grounds to treat malfeasance in office as a criminal offense.

“[The commonwealth] notes that there are jury instructions in the Model Jury Instructions which govern the Common Law of trespass,” he wrote. “However, as was pointed out by counsel for Mr. Sprouse, there are no criminal jury instructions regarding malfeasance.”

“While malfeasance of office may have been a Common Law Crime in England, it has not remained so in the Commonwealth at present,” Minton wrote. “Rather, it is a definition of a misbehavior in office that can lead, in a quasi-criminal proceeding, to the removal from office of the malfeasant.”

The three-page decision is Commonwealth v. Sprouse, VLW No. 022-8-064.