In a step that Virginia's top law enforcement officer calls "irregular" and troublesome, Prince William County prosecutor Paul B. Ebert has instructed the county's independent magistrates not to approve warrants or criminal summonses against any public official in the county without his direct approval.
Disclosure of Ebert's little-known directive -- a policy he says has been in force for years -- has surprised State Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman and angered the director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Virginia chapter.
Coleman said he would "look into" Ebert's policy, which the attorney general said "runs the risk of interfering with the magistrate's independent judgment."
None of Virginia's other 120 commonwealth's attorneys are known to exercise such control over the issuance of warrants and summonses in their localities, Coleman said.
Chan Kendrick, the ACLU's Virginia director called Ebert's policy "outrageous. It's a double standard where police are being treated with kid gloves while ordinary citizens are not."
But Ebert, 41, commonwealth's attorney in Prince William for the past 12 years, said he had no apology for his policy despite Coleman's and Kendrick's doubts. "I just don't share his (Coleman's) opinion," Ebert said. "I think my policy is a better policy."
The prosecutor said he adopted the policy to prevent citizens from harassing county officials and police with criminal charges that were unlikely to stand up in the courts.
Ebert said he believes he has the power to instruct magistrates not to issue the warrants as part of his general powers as the county's chief prosecutor.
In other Virginia localities such papers are automatically served, once signed by magistrates.
Ebert agreed in an interview, however, that he is powerless to stop the magistrates from approving the legal papers without his approval, but said he has "never known them to do otherwise."
Under Virginia law, magistrates are independent court officers named by state circuit court judges to four-year terms. They are supposed to issue warrants and summonses for criminal offenses if they believe there is a likelihood that an individual committed a crime.
Thomas Yowell, a Prince William magistrate for the past four years, said he has been "sometimes under great duress and stress" to maintain his independence. He laughed and declined further comment when asked how independent of Ebert were the county's magistrates.
Ebert's policy became known two week ago when Magistrate Linda Poe, issued a criminal summons against Manassas Park Police Chief Tom Stone. The summons was never served on Stone because police referred it to Elbert, who, after a week's delay announced that he believed the charge cruelty to animals was without foundation.
Neither Loudoun nor Fairfax County prosecutors said they have a policy of treating summonses or warrants for public officials differently from those against anyone else. "I have the power not to prosecute, but I do not have the power not to have a warrant served," said Loudoun Commonwealth's Attorney Donald W. Devine.
Ebert, who is currently president of the Prince William County Bar Association, said he has written letters to the county's magistrates advising them against approving court papers against county officials without his knowledge. "We've told them that over the years," he said, adding that he was surprised that the summons against the Manassas Park chief had been signed by Poe.
"I don't know how that happened," Ebert said. "I hope that in the future she will adhere to that policy."
Some of the county's magistrates said they have issued warrants without obtaining Ebert's approval but such actions are exceptional, all agreed. Chief Prince William Magistrate James Burns said he would not act "without first talking to Ebert. If it were a real serious complaint, someone accusing police of brutality or abuse, I'd take the complaint, but on Ebert's advice, I would or would not issue the warrant."
Ebert's directive to the magistrates isn't his only unusual directive to county officials. Some police in the county say that Ebert has cautioned them not to talk to reporters, a policy that Ebert denies. He does not deny that the county police are reluctant to talk to reporters. "We're fairly tight-mouthed as a law-enforcement body here," he said.