The House of Delegates delivered its first strong rebuke to Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb today by rejecting two key elements of his package of bills designed to stem the state's rising crime rate.
With Robb's fellow Democrats voting against him overwhelmingly, legislators turned down a bill that would have broadened the power of police officers to conduct searches of private property.
They also rejected a hastily drafted Robb proposal that would open up space in the state's overcrowded prison system by giving early parole to some nonviolent offenders to make room for violent offenders the governor has said he wants to keep in jail longer.
The Robb crime package, based largely on campaign promises from the governor and Attorney General Gerald Baliles, has met with mixed success so far. Many of the bills have come under sharp criticism from the defense lawyers who dominate the powerful House Courts of Justice Committee.
Del. Theodore Morrison (D-Newport News), a prominent criminal lawyer, led the attack against the two bills that went down to defeat today, arguing that they would jeopardize civil liberties of individuals and only worsen the state's deepening prison crisis.
"This is the worse thing you could do for the future course of the state's criminal justice system," said Morrison of a Robb proposal that would have shortened prison terms for nonviolent offenders, while at the same time denying parole to prisoners convicted of their third felony offense.
Morrison also criticized Robb's unsuccessful effort to broaden police search powers, arguing that it could have prompted a widespread abuse of police power. "The only protection we want here is not for criminals, but for all of us," he said.
Another key part of the package which proposed stiffer sentencing for the criminally insane was withdrawn this week after legislators criticized it as poorly drafted. Also killed in committee was a bill that would have increased parental liability for property damage committed by their children.
The House did approve two anticrime bills proposed by Robb, including one that would increase the mandatory sentences for criminals who use guns in the commission of a felony from one to three years on a first offense and from three to five on a second offense. Another bill that passed today would extend the state's authority to use wiretaps to kidnaping and marijuana felony cases.
Several legislators today criticized the governor indirectly for his tough anticrime promises which, they said, would not result in any real deterrence of criminals. The Robb administration also came under attack for the confusing nature of its proposal to grant earlier parole to nonviolent offenders.
Under the Robb proposal, people convicted of consentual sodomy would be classified as violent offenders while some types of burglary would be considered nonviolent.
"You start moving these people out while at the same time, you've been going around the state saying 'Let's lock people up." said Del. Clinton Millery (R-Shenandoah.)
Public Safety Secretary Franklin White today acknowledged that the new parole standards for nonviolent offenders were hastily written. "This idea came right out of my head a week or two after I started the job," he said. "But if we come back with a bill like this next year, we will be that much further ahead."
Voting 52 to 35, the House turned down a Robb proposal that would have changed the state's exclusionary rule to allow courtroom use of evidence gained from what are presently considered illegal searches, if it can be proven that police believed they had conducted the search properly.
Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke), leading a sometimes heated hour-long debate, argued that the change would give police more tools with which to fight "the devil" of rising crime.
Opponents said the measure--opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union--was an unwarranted intrusion on the rights of individuals. "You take away the exclusionary rule away and you'll have nothing left," said Del. Bernard Cohen (D-Alexandria). "Every officer will say, 'I had good intentions.'