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Recall Effort Targets Arlington’s Top Prosecutor

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti at an NAACP and Black Lives Matter rally and march in Arlington last year (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

A new political group has announced plans to force a recall of Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.

Virginians for Safe Communities (VSC) is aiming to remove her and her counterparts in Fairfax County and Loudoun County — Steve Descano and Buta Biberaj, respectively — by gathering enough signatures to have a court review its case against the three prosecutors. Should the group get those signatures and should a judge rule in its favor, a special election would be held.

The trio were elected in 2019 on their pledges to reform the criminal justice system, and Arlington’s top prosecutor has emphasized initiatives such as decriminalizing marijuana possession, ending cash bail and increasing data transparency. But not everyone sees her changes, or those of her counterparts in neighboring counties, as reforms.

“Their radical policies have proven not only unlawful but dangerous, including eliminating cash bail by fiat, unilaterally nullifying narcotics laws, and failing to prosecute serious crimes. The people of our community would be shocked that these prosecutors aren’t pursuing crimes like animal cruelty, domestic assault, reckless driving, and indecent exposure,” VSC President Sean Kennedy tells ARLnow.

Dehghani-Tafti rejected his claims and said she is fulfilling her campaign promises well.

“I’m doing exactly what I promised my community I would do — what I was elected to do — and doing it well: making the system more fair, more responsive, and more rehabilitative, while keeping us safe,” she said. “This is a far-right attempt to overturn a valid election through a non-democratic recall.”

The effort has already received coverage by national outlets such as the New York Times, which described Kennedy as a Republican political operative and noted that another backer, former Trump administration appointee Ian Prior, is “leading a petition drive to recall school board members in Loudoun County over critical race theory.

The group has not disclosed who its donors are.

Kennedy cited Arlington County Police Department’s annual report, which notes an increase in felony aggravated assaults and carjackings, as evidence against Dehghani-Tafti — though the report also shows a decrease in violent sex offenses and a relatively low homicide rate. He also cited rising homicide rates in Fairfax County in 2021 and an alleged failure to prosecute domestic abusers in Loudoun.

Meanwhile, Dehghani-Tafti’s tenure has seen some conflicts with judges over plea deals and dropping charges without stating a reason why for the record.

Public Defender Brad Haywood defended Dehghani-Tafti and said the group does not have a pulse on Arlington’s community or courthouse.

“I don’t know all of the problems they’re having in other jurisdictions, but the consensus among defense attorneys and her prosecutor colleagues from places like Alexandria and Portsmouth is that Ms. Dehghani-Tafti has done the best job of any of the reform-oriented prosecutors elected in Virginia over the past few years,” he tells ARLnow. “She’s been thoughtful about staff retention and recruitment, she’s moved at a measured pace with her policy changes, and she’s been deliberate about engaging and showing respect to stakeholder groups that were skeptical of her, such as the police department.”

Haywood added that there have been no homicides yet in 2021, and his office has observed that sexual assault appears to be prosecuted more aggressively now than under her predecessor, Theo Stamos.

Matthew Hurtt, a spokesman for the Arlington County Republican Committee and former ARLnow opinion columnist, said Arlington Republicans are concerned about the stats and “look forward to working alongside Virginians for Safe Communities wherever we can.”

“We are encouraged by a broad, bipartisan coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and independents who support prosecutors who will faithfully execute their oath of office and uphold the law,” he said. “Picking and choosing which laws to enforce or re-writing laws wholesale is not the job of a prosecutor — it’s the job of the general assembly.”

But the bar is high for proving an elected official needs to be ousted. VSC will need some 5,500 petition signatures from Arlington County and Falls Church City, 30,000 signatures from Fairfax County, and 11,500 signatures from Loudoun County, Kennedy said. VSC plans to send out paid and volunteer canvassers throughout the three counties, he said.

Haywood called the move a “stunt,” given the high bar and the timing of the movement.

“Even if they defy the odds and somehow find a judge to rule their way, what results is another election, which the same prosecutor can run in,” he said. “Moreover, that election, should it come to pass, would take place probably less than 12 months before the next primary. What’s the point? Just seems like grandstanding to me.”

Asked if the recall could be part of a real political shift, Hurtt said, “Arlington’s 22,000+ Republicans deserve to be part of the public policy conversation, and we are actively and aggressively looking for ways to impact the outcome of future elections.”

This recall is happening within a context of wider recall efforts, with two actively going on for members of the Fairfax and Loudoun School Board members. According to Ballotpedia, the last time there were four or more active recalls was during 2016 and 2017.

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