A Quick Overview of Virginia’s Gang Laws

Knowingly committing a crime on behalf of a gang is a serious offense in Virginia that often results in Class 4 or 5 felony charges.

Like many states, Virginia has special laws in place to combat gang-related crime. However, while most states passed gang laws back in the 1980’s, Virginia’s are more recent.

In fact, the Virginia legislature made amendments to its anti-gang legislation as recently as 2008. This focus on anti-gang legislation reflects the state government’s belief that gang violence is on the rise in Virginia.

In this article, we’ll go over Virginia’s various gang laws. We’ll also talk about the way that the law defines the term “gang.”

How does Virginia Define Gangs?

Group of men walking, shot of their legs.

In order to qualify as a criminal gang under Virginia law, a group must include three or more people and meet a few specific requirements. These requirements state that the “gang” must:

  • Have the commission of crime as one of its primary purposes.
    • A group of acquaintances who happen to commit a crime together, for example, do not count as a criminal gang.
  • Have an identifying name, color, or symbol.
  • Contain members who have committed two or more crimes in connection to (or on behalf of) the organization. At least one of these must have been a violent crime.

As you can probably tell from these criteria, Virginia’s gang laws were made to fight large-scale criminal organizations. Small-scale outfits, such as local drug rings, rarely qualify as criminal gangs under this definition. Instead, the state handles these smaller organizations through standard criminal charges, such as conspiracy or possession.

Gang-Related Crimes

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Unlike California and some other states, Virginia does not permit the use of gang injunctions. For this reason, in order to arrest a person for membership in a gang, Virginia police must first have direct, credible evidence that the person committed a crime.

In other words, “being in a gang” is not a crime in Virginia, although participating in criminal gang activities is. To help you better understand these activities, we’ll list a few examples of specific gang-related crimes below.

Participation

Committing any crime as a part of a gang, or knowingly benefiting from the activities of a gang, is illegal in Virginia. The penalties for these acts vary depending on the age of the gang member:

  • For minors, or members of all-adult gangs, participation in gang activities is a class 5 felony. The maximum penalty is a $2,500 fine and up to ten years in prison.
  • For adult members of gangs containing minors, participation is a class 4 felony. The maximum penalty is a $100,000 fine and up to ten years in prison.

Note that this is in addition to the penalties for the actual crime.

For example, someone who non-fatally stabs another person as part of gang activity may end up with both participation and malicious wounding charges. As such, they could face a 20-year sentence for malicious wounding in addition to a 10-year sentence for gang participation.

Recruitment

The law also prohibits knowingly recruiting others into gangs. The penalties depend upon both the method of recruitment and the age of the victim:

  • Recruiting another adult into a gang is a class 1 misdemeanor. It has a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
  • Recruiting a minor into a gang is a class 6 felony. It has a maximum sentence of a $2,500 fine and up to ten years in prison.
  • Recruiting another person into a gang using threats is also a class 6 felony. The same is true of using threats to force someone to remain in a gang.

Hazing

Hazing newer gang members is also illegal in Virginia. For the purposes of this law, “hazing” refers to any way of endangering the safety of or inflicting harm on a youth for the purposes of a gang initiation.

Doing so is a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Additional Virginia Gang Laws

Drug-free sign near school.

There are a few other laws specifically laid out in the Virginia code that relate to gang activity. We’ll list three of the most important below.

Three Strikes

A person convicted of three or more separate counts of gang participation or recruitment in ten years suffers additional penalties. From the third conviction on, all such convictions are class 3 felonies. This means that the maximum sentence goes up to twenty years in prison, along with a fine of $100,000.

Gang-Free School Zones

In order to prevent children from joining gangs, the Virginia legislature introduced a law to keep gang activity out of school zones. Within 1,000 feet of any school property, gang participation and recruitment entails additional penalties. Note that this explicitly includes school busses.

The penalties for violating this law range from a mandatory minimum prison sentence of two years to a class 5 felony, punishable by 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine. These penalties vary considerably based on the specific circumstances of the crime, as well as the judge’s discretion.

Gang Activity and Delinquent Juveniles

From a criminal justice perspective, criminalizing gangs tends to run into the following issues:

  • Many members of gangs joined young, and many remain young.
  • Other members may have joined as a result of threats, or other pressure.

For these reasons, Virginia gang laws tend to focus heavily on “delinquent juveniles.” In Virginia, a delinquent juvenile is any individual under the age of 18 who commits a felony or misdemeanor.

Juvenile offenders differ from adults in that they are eligible for diversion. This means that rather than suffering the standard penalties associated with a crime, they may enter into an alternative relief program.

Typically, juveniles are only eligible for diversion for their first major offense. However, this may vary based on the judgement of the judge overseeing the case.

In addition, Virginia generally seals the court records of juveniles, except for internal use among government agencies. Thus, juvenile offenses are unlikely to show up on employer background checks.

Conclusion

Teens playing basketball in park.

Virginia law treats gang activity as a serious criminal offense. However, the definition of a “criminal” gang is very specific under Virginia law. It refers only to groups of three or more people who have committed at least one violent crime.

In addition, those people must use a name or symbol to reference themselves. For this reason, gang-related charges not related to large-scale crime organizations tend to be difficult to prove.

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