Every year, the Virginia General Assembly passes a large number of bills that the Governor then signs into law.
These new laws are then written into the Virginia Code, where they go into effect on July 1st of every year.
In this article, we’ll briefly go over some of the most important recent changes to the Virginia Code.
While this is not a complete list of all the changes, it should provide a basic overview of the major touchstones you should look out for in the coming months.
You can read about every change on Virginia’s Legislative Information System.
Virginia Court Fines and Suspended Licenses
Historically, Virginia Courts would refer individuals who failed to pay their court fees to the Virginia DMV, which would then suspend their driving privileges.
Under a new budgetary amendment, however, the Virginia DMV will no longer suspend the licenses of individuals whose only violation is having outstanding court fees.
“The driver’s license reinstatement fee payable to the Trauma Center Fund shall be $100 the first year and $0 the second year. In the second year…no court shall suspend any person’s privilege to drive a motor vehicle solely for failure to pay any fines, court costs, forfeitures, restitution, or penalties assessed against such person.”Budget Bill – HB1700 (Chapter 854) Item 3-6.03
Further, this change in policy is retroactive, meaning that:
- The DMV will reinstate the driving privileges of individuals who currently have suspended licenses as a result of unpaid court fees.
- Individuals who are currently charged with crimes such as driving with a suspended or revoked license, and who would otherwise have a license under this new policy, may be able to avoid a conviction if at the time they were charged with the pending offense, their license was suspended based on court costs and fines.
- Individuals who have previously been charged with crimes related to a license suspension resulting from unpaid court fees will no longer feel the effects of this suspension on future charges or conviction.
As a result of these changes, almost 627,000 Virginia drivers will soon receive a letter in the mail which contains instructions for how they can reinstate their license.
Traffic Laws and Related Offenses
In addition to the license suspension change noted above, the General Assembly has made several other changes to Virginia’s traffic laws.
Driving Under the Influences (DUI) Penalties
Previously, courts considered all such crimes to be Class 6 felonies.
All Virginia parents must use rear-facing car seats to secure their children until the children either:
- Reach the age of two; OR,
- Meet the minimum weight standards for a forward-facing seat.
Using a Cell Phone in a Work Zone
Individuals who are caught using their phones in a work zone will face a mandatory fine of $250.
This is to protect the safety of both the drivers and the road workmen.
The only exceptions include:
- An emergency vehicle while they are working.
- Cases where the driver is parked or stopped.
- The use of factory-installed or aftermarket global positioning systems (GPS) or wireless communications devices used to transmit or receive data as part of a digital dispatch system.
- When the driver is using a cell phone to report an emergency.
Failing to “Move Over” when Passing Stationary Emergency Vehicles now a Crime
As of July 1st, 2019, Virginia’s old “move over” law has been revoked.
In its place, we now have a new law which codifies any failure to move over when passing stationary emergency vehicles as reckless driving.
“[Any driver,] upon approaching a stationary vehicle that is displaying a flashing, blinking, or alternating blue, red, or amber light or lights…[shall] yield the right-of-way by making a lane change into a lane not adjacent to the stationary vehicle, or…if changing lanes would be unreasonable or unsafe, proceed with due caution and maintain a safe speed for highway conditions.”Virginia Code § 46.2-861.1
Note that failing to move over for stationary tow trucks or similar non-emergency vehicles is still a traffic infraction.
Family Law Updates
In addition to the criminal and traffic spheres, the Virginia Code also has several new updates to Virginia’s family laws.
Generally speaking, most of these updates center on protecting the safety (both personal and economic) of at-risk children.
Fostering and Adoption
Foster children will now receive automatic security freezes on their credit reports.
This will help prevent identity theft as well as protect the children themselves from various forms of financial hardship.
On top of all of this, a bill has added stepsiblings, stepparents, and other adult relatives to the list of people who can apply to adopt children.
Custody and Visitation
As a small update to Virginia’s child custody laws, judges now have additional discretion in determining how parents hand off custody to one another.
“At the request of either party, the court may order that the exchange of a child shall take place at an appropriate meeting place.”Virginia Code § 20-124.3
Power of Attorney and Parental Custody Powers
As a rather large change, the General Assembly added an entire new chapter to the Domestic Relations (“Family Law”) Title regarding power of attorney powers.
Essentially, a parent or legal guardian can delegate their legal custodial powers to another person for a period of up to 180 days.
This section is especially important for military service members, as they can now delegate their parental or legal custodian powers to another person for either:
- 180 days total; OR, if on active duty for longer than 180 days,
- for a period equal to their active duty term plus 30 days.
As another important change, this law specifically states:
“In the event that both parents of a child are exercising joint custody, both parents shall be required to execute such a power of attorney.”Virginia Code § 20-166
Put another way, in order for one parent to execute a power of attorney over a child in a joint custody case, both parents must sign off on the order.
Tobacco, Drug, and Alcohol Products
There are also several changes to the way the Virginia Code treats potentially addictive or harmful substances.
Generally speaking, most of these changes relate to how people can access various drugs and other harmful substances.
Tobacco and Smoking Regulations
The minimum age for buying tobacco products in the state of Virginia has changed from 18 to 21.
This includes e-cigarettes and vape products.
There is an exception for all active-duty military personnel, who can still purchase tobacco starting at the age of 18.
As a minor update to Virginia’s marijuana laws, it’s now easier for medical-adjacent individuals to distribute THC oil to individuals who have a prescription from a doctor.
This law specifically applies to school nurses, people employed by a local health department and assigned to a public school, and other individuals employed by, or contracted with, a local school board to deliver health-related services.
Wider Naloxone Distribution
Naloxone is an important medication which blocks many of the harmful effects of opioid use.
Specifically, it can quickly restore a person’s ability to breathe after a heroin or prescription opioid overdose.
These changes all center on promoting a wider use of the medication in combatting Virginia’s opioid crisis:
- All emergency medical personnel and health care providers in hospital emergency rooms can now dispense naloxone.
- School nurses, school board employees, and local health department employees assigned to public schools can now legally carry and administer naloxone after receiving training on the drug.
- Employees of regional jails can also now possess and administer naloxone, provided they complete a training program.
The largest changes to the Virginia Code center on various additions and edits to Virginia’s traffic and criminal defense laws.
While nearly every single title experienced changes this year, the large majority of these changes are procedural, and will not have an effect on the average Virginia resident.
You can read all of the 2019 changes to the Virginia Code on the Virginia Legal Information System website.