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New Laws Target Gangs

Sengel updates police officers on changes.

A host of new laws went into effect on July 1 in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and law enforcement officers will have several new tools to fight gang-related activity, evidence tampering and methamphetamine production. For the past few weeks, Commonwealth Attorney S. Randolph Sengel has been training officers in roll-call sessions that explain the legal consequences of recent acts of the General Assembly.

Del. David Albo (R-42) patroned HB2217, a bill that uses Virginia's nuisance statute allowing law enforcement officials to target locations where gang-related activity happens.

"Back in the 1980s, there were several establishments purporting to be massage parlors that operated in Alexandria as fronts for prostitution," Sengel said. "Traditional law enforcement tactics didn't have much impact, and the commonwealth attorney's office used this nuisance statue to file civil suits against the property owners. Facing the prospect of having their property boarded up for a year, the owners suddenly became very cooperative about acquiring new tenants."

Because the strategy of using the nuisance statute was successful in combating prostitution, legislators felt that it could also be useful against gangs. Two areas of Alexandria that officials are particularly concerned about include Arlandria and the west end. While gang-related activity in Alexandria has been relatively low compared to Fairfax County, the Alexandria Police Department is concerned with the growing problem of gang-related violence in Northern Virginia.

"We're always looking for new and innovative ways to curb gang-related activity," said Capt. John Crawford, commander of the Alexandria Police Department's Public Information Office. "Police departments in this part of Virginia are taking gang-related activity very seriously."

Last year, the General Assembly created the Gang Crime Prosecution Task Force to help prosecute gang-related crime. Alexandria and four other Northern Virginia jurisdictions were able to hire one additional prosecutor each to work in support of law enforcement officers assigned to the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force. While neighboring jurisdictions have experienced more gang-related crime than Alexandria, officials have reason to suspect that Alexandria has reason to take action now.

"These folks don't pay attention to jurisdictions," Sengel said. "I don't think that any jurisdiction can afford to be complacent, and we're taking measures now to work against gang-related activity in Alexandria."

ANOTHER BILL, HB2288, patroned by Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-31), makes tampering with evidence a Class 6 felony. The bill targets anyone who "willfully conceals, alters, dismembers, or destroys any item of physical evidence with the intent to delay, impede, obstruct, prevent, or hinder the investigation, apprehension, prosecution, conviction, or punishment of any person."

"In training police officers on these new statutes, I have encouraged them to use this one aggressively if they find someone trying to clean up or change the appearance of a crime scene," Sengel said.

He recalled one incident that happened several years ago in which a murder suspect wanted to get rid of a gun that had been used in a homicide. The suspect gave the gun to a friend, who threw it into the Potomac River. Under the new statue, the friend who tried to dispose of the murder weapon could be prosecuted for concealing evidence.

"A crime scene should remain intact until police have an opportunity to collect evidence," Crawford said.

METHAMPHETAMINES represent a challenge to law-enforcement officers because they do not have to be smuggled. They can be manufactured using ordinary items that can be purchased at most convenience stores. Some items that have been targeted by the state attorney general's office include cold medicine, drain cleaner, coffee filters and road flares.

Although use of methamphetamines is greatest in the westernmost reaches of the commonwealth, distribution of the drugs has increased across Virginia. Originally intended for use in nasal decongestants and bronchial inhalers, methamphetamines are a powerful stimulant that affects the central nervous system.

In January, Del. Robert Tata (R-85) patroned HB1974, which provides "that any person who possesses any two or more of the following substances with the intent to manufacture methamphetamine, methcathinone or amphetamine is guilty of a Class 6 felony." The bill also requires the Virginia Department of State Police, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Health, and Division of Forensic Science to establish a multi-agency work group to develop a best-practices protocol regarding the clean-up of abandoned and deactivated methamphetamine production sites.

"This will give law enforcement officers the ability to shut down labs before they even produce any amount of the illegal drug," Sengel said.

According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, methamphetamine labs started moving from California in the early 1990s. In Virginia, arrests for amphetamines or methamphetamines increased from 203 in 2000 to 470 in 2003, with most drug activity occurring in the southwest area of the commonwealth. Five methamphetamine labs were seized in 2001, compared with 23 in 2003 and 78 in 2004.