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Welcome to Virginia, Where Everybody Gets To Be A Cop

 

On May 31, 2019, Jon McIvor fled from his workplace in Building 2 of the Municipal Center, to escape a murderer who gunned down and killed 12 of his co-workers. On June 25, less than a month later, supervisors told Jon that he would be required to return to work in the very same building. Understandably, Jon was overwhelmed with anxiety about returning to work at the site where he witnessed a traumatic mass murder. 

 

Following the meeting, Jon’s two supervisors went to the magistrate’s office and wrote criminal complaints alleging that Jon became angry, stood up, raised his voice, and informed them that he was going to do the one thing people are supposed to do when they have a dispute with their supervisors -- which is contact Human Resources.

 

The next day, police arrested Jon at his workplace on two warrants for disturbing the peace. Jon, who is 46 years old with no criminal record, was handcuffed in front of his co-workers, strip searched at the jail, outfitted with an orange jumpsuit, and forced to spend more than 24 hours in the city jail before being released. Following an outpouring of public outrage after WAVY-TV and the Virginian-Pilot’s coverage of the story, the charges were quickly dismissed on July 3. 

 

But the question remains: How did this happen?

 

Unlike most states where private citizens can’t initiate criminal prosecutions, Virginia is one of a handful of states that allows for citizen-initiated misdemeanor arrest warrants. In fact, the process is as simple as walking into the magistrate’s office, identifying a person by name, providing an address where the warrant can be served to them, and writing a criminal complaint. There is no requirement of testimony from a law enforcement officer, or corroborating evidence to support the complaint. If the magistrate finds probable cause to support a misdemeanor offense, an arrest warrant or summons is issued without the input of a police officer, prosecutor, or judge.  

 

But in Jon’s case, there was no crime. Jon never threatened anyone, nor did he do anything to incite violence. Even if all of the details in the criminal complaint are absolutely true, all Jon did was voice his concerns and inform his supervisors that he was going to air his grievances with Human Resources.

 

Simply put, the magistrate never should have issued the warrant. That mistake was compounded when the magistrate issued a “not permitted” warrant which required the officer to arrest Jon and take him to jail, rather than a “permitted” warrant, which would have allowed the police to use their discretion in deciding whether to make an arrest or to issue a summons. 

 

The bottom line is that this system failed miserably. 

 

In the wake of this embarrassing debacle, we believe that a close examination of Virginia’s citizen-initiated warrant process is needed. We’ve seen firsthand from decades in the trenches as public defenders and private defense attorneys that the citizen-initiated warrant system is rife with abuse. Many people use the citizen warrant process to manipulate the criminal justice system for their own ends through frivolous, vindictive, and harassing complaints. Unfortunately because of this, law-abiding people like Jon are routinely arrested and forced to face criminal charges on nothing more than the word of an ex-spouse, disgruntled co-worker, or vengeful neighbor. 

 

Even when the charges are ultimately dismissed, significant and irreparable damage is often already done. Innocent people serve jail time and are left with arrest records. They pay attorney’s fees that they may not be able to afford. They lose their jobs. 

 

There can be no question that the consequences of these complaints are severe, even when completely unfounded. We believe that it is time for Virginia to join the overwhelming number of states who have abandoned the archaic citizen-initiated warrant process. All warrants, whether misdemeanor or felony, should require the authorization of a police officer or a commonwealth’s attorney.

 

This commonsense policy of requiring an impartial professional law enforcement official to sign off on a warrant would have likely prevented the outrageous injustice that was inflicted on Jon McIvor. By illuminating the failings of this system now, we hope to prevent other Virginians from being robbed of their livelihoods, reputations, and liberty.

 

 

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