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A man died Tuesday after being found unresponsive in the medical unit of the Arlington County jail, prompting a regional law enforcement investigation and statements from local leaders.

Clyde Spencer, 58, was rushed to Virginia Hospital Center, where he later died. He is the sixth inmate at the jail to die over the past six years.

The last reported inmate death, in October 2020, remains under investigation. A regional body called the Northern Virginia Critical Incident Response Team is now investigating Spencer’s death.

Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti, Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and Sheriff Beth Arthur — whose office runs the jail — all issued expressions of sympathy for Spencer’s family and support for the CIRT investigation in statements released Friday morning.

From a county press release:

Arlington County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti, along with the Sheriff and Commonwealth Attorney, issued the following statements today regarding the death investigation at the Arlington County Detention Facility earlier this week.

“Mr. Clyde Spencer passed away Tuesday at the Virginia Hospital Center after he was taken there when he was found unresponsive at the Arlington County Detention Facility. Our thoughts and sympathies are with Mr. Spencer’s family and friends in this time of loss,” said de Ferranti. “We support the decision to call for an independent investigation from the Northern Virginia Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), a regional team that investigates deaths or serious injuries involving law enforcement officers in participating jurisdictions in Northern Virginia.”

“We offer our condolences to the Spencer family,” said Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur. “Incidents like these are taken very seriously by my office, and me personally. We will fully cooperate with the investigation.”

“My heart goes out to the families suffering from the loss of their loved ones,” said Commonwealth Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. “We are diligently working with the CIRT and the ACPD on these cases and hope the community and the families involved understand that we cannot reveal the content of the investigations, and the Virginia rule of professional conduct 3.6 prohibits me from commenting on a pending case.”

At the completion of a comprehensive, thorough, and impartial investigation, the CIRT will present the facts and evidence to the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.

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Arlington’s top prosecutor is seeking an attorney to lead a new unit that reviews potentially wrongful convictions.

The unit — the first unit of its kind in Northern Virginia, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti — launched a little more than seven months ago.

At the time, Dehghani-Tafti said that no full-time staff would be assigned to only this unit because there wouldn’t be enough work. In her initial announcement, she said it would be led by Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Cari Steele and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Wiley.

That has changed in the last half-year, with the position evolving into a full-time job “in its own right,” she tells ARLnow.

“It’s to the County Board and County Manager’s credit that they recognize the importance of the Conviction Review Unit,” Dehghani-Tafti said, adding that “the money is coming from the County Manager’s budget.”

Dehghani-Tafti, who was elected on her pledge to reform the local criminal justice system, made setting up such a unit a campaign promise when she ran for office in 2019.

She said her office regularly receives requests to review cases from a variety of sources, including convicted individuals, their legal counsel and various advocacy organizations.

“We take time to review these requests in a thorough manner,” she said. “This involves a lot of work and requires us not only to go through our own files, but also to seek files and records from as many sources as possible, reviewing forensic testing, and sometimes seeking out additional forensic testing.”

Initially, she said she thought this could be done in house, and the approved 2021-22 budget for her department only requested four new positions, all assigned to reviewing footage from body-worn cameras. (The Arlington County Police Department began wearing cameras in December 2020.)

“I try to be conservative with the budget, so I was hesitant to ask for additional [employees] until and unless I had the workload to support it,” she said. “I’m particularly sensitive to the reality that in this era of Covid, the County is facing immense funding demands from multiple fronts, but in this case, the work of the Conviction Review Unit has truly become a full time job in its own right.”

As for the positions related to body-worn cameras, those are already filled and the attorneys strained, she said.

“We also are finding that the BWC requires more of a workload than four attorneys can handle,” she said. “As I anticipated in March, based on the hours of BWC we were seeing, we definitely need more than the four additional attorneys.”

Dehghani-Tafti initially told the County Board that prosecutors will review about 15,000 hours of body worn camera video evidence this year — roughly equivalent to all the working hours of more than seven attorneys. The Office of the Magistrate, which reviews criminal conduct complaints, said it has the resources needed to review footage, however.

The conviction review position Dehghani-Tafti is seeking to fill, officially titled Commonwealth Attorney II, would pay between $91,500 and $140,000 annually. Whoever fills the role would spend his or her time engaged in a “specialized, time-consuming legal process” involving the following responsibilities, according to the job listing:

  • Identifying and defining the involvement of the former police officers in the casework and the conviction of defendants prosecuted by the Office of the CWA;
  • Conducting a thorough review of files, records, evidence and testimony in those cases;
  • Testing the validity of evidence (e.g., analyzing chains of custody);
  • Determining acts and sources of any intentional or unintentional wrongdoing in the development and prosecution of these cases;
  • Recommending courses of action based on review of these cases (e.g., exoneration);
  • Determining if and when a victim should be contacted regarding the conviction review process; and
  • Performing other tasks that may be assigned as needed to complete the post-conviction review process.
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A recall effort targeting Arlington’s top prosecutor is reportedly gaining some traction.

In August, a political group named Virginians for Safe Communities (VSC) launched a recall effort against Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, as well as her counterparts Buta Biberaj and Steve Descano in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, respectively.

Dehghani-Tafti was elected in 2019 on a pledge to reform the criminal justice system. Her tenure has included efforts to reduce racial disparities in prosecution, investigate wrongful convictions and decriminalize marijuana possession. But VSC says her approach has made Arlington less safe.

And now, the group is expanding its outreach with mailers — sent to homes in Arlington this week — as well as a new website dedicated to Dehghani-Tafti and an electronic recall petition. The website is reportedly attracting visitors and signatories, recall organizers say.

“VSC has begun to send out mailers to voters educating them on Parisa’s radical and dangerous agenda and dereliction of her duty to uphold justice, protect victims, and enforce the laws of the Commonwealth,” VSC leader Sean Kennedy says.

“Our effort in Arlington County and the City of Falls Church is ramping up substantially in the near future and will include direct communication with voters on various platforms as well as public forums,” Kennedy continued. “FireParisa.com is generating a great deal of traffic already in [this] first week and we are well on our way to collecting the requisite 5,500 signatures to protect Arlington by removing her at trial.”

The mailer accuses Dehghani-Tafti of lenient treatment of criminals, referencing plea deals with a man allegedly caught with 50 lbs of marijuana at National Airport and a man charged with throwing two dogs off a balcony to their deaths.

In a response, Dehghani-Tafti denied VSC’s claims that she is neglecting her prosecutorial duties and linked the group to other recall efforts in the region.

“These are lies being pushed by the same Trump, dark-money supported political operatives and right-wing groups that have sought to intimidate elected school boards all over Northern Virginia for simply doing their jobs. It’s part of a broader scheme nationwide where they abuse outdated recall laws because they can’t win at the ballot box,” she said.

VSC’s activity has been covered by 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 recall effort comes for Descano as he’s facing blowback from judges for what they characterize as overly lenient plea deals in child sex abuse cases.

What’s happening between Descano and the judge’s bench is another example of the judicial tug-of-war between progressive, reform-minded prosecutors and judges.

VSC has to gather enough signatures to have a court review its case against the three prosecutors. A special election would be held if the group both gets those signatures and a judge rules in its favor.

In addition to paid and volunteer canvassers, the group has launched electronic petitions. Kennedy said it’s a common misconception that signatures for Virginia candidates or official recalls must be pen-and-paper. During the pandemic, six candidates for elected office successfully sued the Virginia Department of Elections and State Board of Elections allowing for the electronic collection of signatures.

“Recent Virginia Supreme Court rulings, statutory changes in Richmond, and Virginia Board of Election settlements and rule changes have substantially altered those requirements,” he said. “Our very experienced counsel have concluded confidently that digital signatures (which are signed until penalty of perjury and using a signature tool, not text alone) are valid.”

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Earlier this month the Arlington and Falls Church prosecutor’s office obtained convictions in two cases involving sex crimes and children.

And the county’s top prosecutor, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, took to Twitter last week to do something she said she has “never previously done: comment on the outcome of cases in our office.”

As Commonwealth’s Attorney, Dehghani-Tafti has held back her thoughts on previous plea deals reported on by ARLnow: one involving a man who threw dogs over a balcony to their death, a second regarding a man who brought a bag stuffed with marijuana and hashish oil through Reagan National Airport, and most recently, the Uber driver who struck the owner of Advanced Towing with his car.

She broke her customary silence to highlight her office’s work on the sex crimes cases, although she said she could not discuss specifics given the sensitive nature of the two cases.

“Pride in the team is the short answer,” she said. “These cases are really challenging, and the team did a fantastic job under the hardest of circumstances.”

Cases involving sex crimes and minors are difficult for a number of reasons, she said, including the victims’ age, the trauma inflicted on them and their family, family dynamics and the quality and quantity of evidence.

As for the timing, she said the office has only recently been able to have jury trials regularly since the pandemic shut down jury proceedings.

“We were only two months into the administration when COVID-19 happened, and we had no chance to have a jury trial,” she said. “We did what we could to keep the system functioning, but there were no trials for a long time. Lately, we’ve had a number of trials, and we’ve won most of them.”

On Twitter, she explained that one reason convictions in these cases are difficult to attain is due to a lack of physical evidence. Anecdotally, Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow prosecutors are more reluctant to take on such cases, as a victory isn’t as clear, and the office’s conviction rate impacts funding.

“Right now, the funding formula for Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Virginia is felony sentencing events and charges, so the incentive is to make sure that you file the most serious charges and you get as many convictions as you can, because that’s what keeps you funded,” she said.

Dehghani-Tafti said she’s motivated to take on challenging cases because of the stories she’s heard of prosecutors avoiding harder cases and picking “easier wins.”

“The one elemental core of my philosophy of criminal prosecution is that our first and last duty is to focus on serious crimes, particularly crimes against the most vulnerable among us,” she wrote on Twitter.

That said, Dehghani-Tafti said she is relying on her background in innocence cases to make sure that goal doesn’t result in wrongful convictions.

“I feel like I’m in a particularly good position to weigh that in the balance,” she said. “If I say we have the evidence and everything is fair, that means making sure we’re using good forensics, making sure we don’t have tunnel vision, getting corroborating statements — really doing the follow-through on the investigative work to support whatever theories there are.”

While proud of her team of attorneys and paralegals, she said convictions are only one part of how a victim or family heals.

“Not all victims want the same thing,” she said. “Not all are waiting for a trial, prosecution or plea. Sometimes, the victims themselves are not the ones pushing the hardest for prosecution and retribution. There’s a whole spectrum of what victims want and need: Some have been waiting for this, and others have either wanted to work out their cases… through diversion.”

As for whether Arlingtonians can expect more openness in the future, Dehghani-Tafti said what she can say about cases is limited to publicly-accessible court documents.

Commonwealth’s Attorneys in Virginia, she wrote, “are governed by a strict ethical code, requiring us not to make public comments about pending cases if they could go to a jury trial. This code applies even if the case is one of public concern, and even when others cherry pick facts and make misleading statements.”

“As prosecutors, our silence is the way we respect the privacy of victims, protect the rights of defendants, and safeguard the integrity of the system,” Dehghani-Tafti wrote. “It allows trials to take place in courtrooms and not in the media.”

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Arlington’s top prosecutor said she is working with Arlington County Police Department to establish a multi-agency cooperative effort to tackle the carjackings and vehicle tamperings here and in the D.C. area.

“My philosophy has always been to focus on crimes that are a public safety risk,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow. “Car tamperings and car thefts, I don’t look at those as simple ‘property crimes’ because those are things that make people feel vulnerable and set people up for dangerous situations.”

Dehghani-Tafti, who was elected in 2019 on a platform of criminal justice reform, said she has been following the theft and tampering trend and looking for patterns. She said she has also been encouraging early and constant communication between her office and ACPD, while the two are working with other Northern Virginia and Maryland jurisdictions and some federal agencies.

This coordination may turn into something like a task force. Talks about one began in February, and she said officials will soon be able to announce some kind of organized intra-jurisdiction response.

“ACPD has been working on the task force, and I’ve been promoting the task force,” the prosecutor said.

Property crimes from 2016 to 2020 (via ACPD)

Motor vehicle thefts have risen steadily since 2018, according to ACPD’s newly released 2020 crime report.

Dehghani-Tafti said that is playing out across the river in D.C., which saw five times more carjackings in the first quarter of 2021 than the same period in 2020. Similar sprees are occurring in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and Howard County, she said.

“We’re seeing this across the country, whether or not a reformer is in office or the county government is progressive or not,” she said.

And Dehghani-Tafti said she has reason to believe the car thefts are organized. A few weeks ago, she drove around with ACPD detectives to see what they see and maintain the collaboration she said is needed to tackle more organized crime sprees.

“The carjackings started to look [organized] when a few people were arrested in February and March and the instances went down dramatically in all the jurisdictions in the D.C. area,” she said.

Her office has one person whose job is to provide early assistance to ACPD and other agencies as they build carjacking and tampering cases. The sooner law enforcement agencies reach out, the sooner her office can support officers as they ask for search warrants, gather evidence and build cases.

Such a collaboration “adds value and context of a case” to investigations “so that we don’t take things that are serious insufficiently seriously and we don’t overreact to cases that are not within the organized pattern we are seeing,” she said.

“The criminal-legal system is a blunt tool, and what we’re trying to do is make it more surgical,” she said.

That approach does not mean she is “soft on crime,” she argued, but that she is going after the right people.

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Morning Notes

High School Graduations Underway — “We are proud of the perseverance our seniors have shown this year. To honor them, we will hold in-person, outdoor events for the graduates of comprehensive high schools and programs, June 11 – June 18, on school grounds.” Wakefield and Washington-Liberty’s graduation ceremonies will be held today, and Yorktown’s will be held on Friday. [Arlington Public Schools]

Arlington Real Estate is Red Hot — “Homes that sold in Northern Virginia in May were on the market for an average of 13 days… In Arlington County, NVAR says sales are happening even faster. ‘When properties hit the market in May they were as good as sold the second they became active on the MLS,’ said Reggie Copeland, president-elect of NVAR and a principal broker at C.R. Copeland Real Estate.” [WTOP]

Twenty-Three ACPD Recruits Graduate — “Family, friends and colleagues gathered on Monday, June 14, 2021, to watch the Arlington County Police Department’s 23 newest officers graduate from Session 144 of the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy. During the graduation, the officers took their oath to serve and protect the Arlington community and safeguard the Constitutional rights of all.” [Arlington County]

Prosecutor Rides Along with ACPD — From Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti: “Good morning peeps. Up since 3am and out with ACPD auto detectives getting their in the trenches perspective on what’s happening with the car thefts, working together on investigations… Seriously, lock your doors please.” [Twitter]

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Arlington’s top prosecutor is partnering with a national criminal justice organization to reduce racial disparities in prosecution.

Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner are the first two prosecutors to participate in a new partnership program from the Vera Institute for Justice, an organization working to reform the justice system, per its website.

“The Vera Institute for Justice has done an incredible amount of work on public safety, incarceration rates, and also whether incarceration is an effective tool for public safety,” Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow. “They were an organization that I was always hopeful to work with.”

As part of the new partnership, Dehghani-Tafti and Gardner will be working to reduce race-based differentials in prosecution rates by 20% in their jurisdictions. The work is part of Vera’s Motion for Justice initiative, in which prosecutors are given support and opportunities to bridge the gap between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve, according to a press release.

Dehghani-Tafti and Gardner’s offices will receive policy recommendations and staff training, as well as resources to analyze data on the ways marginalized people are disproportionately impacted by prosecution practices, the release said.

This partnership, which will last 18 months, singles out Arlington as a leader in this work, Dehghani-Tafti said. The Arlington and St. Louis prosecutors’ offices are the first of up to 10 prosecutors’ offices in jurisdictions across the country that Vera plans to invite on as partners. (Dehghani-Tafti’s office also prosecutes cases for the City of Falls Church.)

“This is the conversation that I started when I started running,” she said. “We need to look at the results of our system and figure out how and why we’re there.”

This partnership is one way Dehghani-Tafti said she is keeping her promise to use data and evidence to drive lasting criminal justice reform.

“We’re going to need some help with our data, making our case management system be able to analyze data and run reports that are actually meaningful,” the prosecutor said.

The system Dehghani-Tafti said she inherited was designed to store information, not answer larger questions such as who is disproportionately represented in certain case outcomes.

“You can go case by case but you’re still operating in a system that we know cements racial and economic divides, continues cycles of traumas, affects families and communities and treats people who are incarcerated and their families — who haven’t done anything wrong — as expendable,” she said.

Here in Northern Virginia, Vera will also provide financial assistance to the Courthouse-based nonprofit Offender Aid and Restoration.

“OAR is an ideal partner for this,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “They’ve been looking at policies and practices, such as community service, through an anti-racism lens: Your economic means, your race, your zip code, your ability to speak English — that all can make it harder or easier to do community service.”

Dehghani-Tafti said she plans to get started with the Vera partnership “forthwith,” as soon as she can schedule 10 training sessions.

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A South Carolina man who forcibly stole a woman’s car and then fled from police has received a nearly four year prison sentence.

On the evening of June 22, 2020, police say Verdell Floyd carjacked a woman in a gas station near Shirlington. According to police, Floyd approached the woman while she was pumping gas “and demanded the vehicle.”

Floyd, then 19, drove into Fairfax County before driving back into Arlington and fleeing from police at a high rate of speed. He later abandoned the car and was arrested after a K-9 search, according to Arlington County police.

The Columbia, South Carolina resident pleaded guilty to felony charges of carjacking and eluding police in January. Last week, he was sentenced in Arlington Circuit Court.

“The court sentenced Mr. Floyd received a sentence at the mid-point of his sentencing guidelines, which requires that he serve an active sentence of 3 years and 8 months to serve,” Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow, in response to inquiries about the case. “The exact sentence was 15 years, with all but 3 years and 6 months suspended on the carjacking charge, and on the eluding charge, 12 months with 10 months suspended. He will be required to engage in supervised probation for 5 years upon release.”

ARLnow also asked about other cases stemming from the rise in carjackings both in Arlington and around the region, specifically seeking stats on such prosecutions in Arlington and comment on how those cases are being handled.

Dehghani-Tafti replied simply: “As for the other cases, we are prosecuting them.”

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The Arlington man accused of throwing dogs over an apartment balcony to their death would potentially not serve additional jail time under a proposed plea agreement.

The agreement, dated December 7,  is signed by the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, but not by the defendant or by his court-appointed attorney Adam Krischer.

ARLnow reached out to Krischer about the status of the agreement, who responded via email that he has no comment. We obtained a copy of the document upon request from the Arlington County Circuit Court, after receiving an anonymous tip about the potential plea agreement.

On January 5, according to documents provided, 27-year-old Zachary changed his “not guilty” plea to “guilty” — while asserting his innocence, in what is known as an Alford plea — for the charge of animal cruelty.

(ARLnow has decided to withhold the defendant’s last name from this article, despite it being publicly reported in previous articles, due to the mental health-related matters discussed in the plea agreement.)

The judge approved the plea and set the sentencing for February 12. The judge also required the defendant to undergo a substance abuse screening prior to sentencing.

Animal cruelty is a felony offense that carries a 1-5 year prison sentence and a fine of up to $2,500. The proposed plea agreement, however, calls for defer disposition for two years, meaning the plea to the felony charge could be withdrawn and dismissed if the defendant adheres to certain conditions.

According to the agreement, those conditions include completing substance abuse evaluation and treatment, undergoing mental health evaluation and counseling, remaining medication compliant, and completing 100 hours of community service.

The defendant also has to remain drug and alcohol free, refrain from owning any animals, and not to have any unsupervised contact with animals beyond those owned by family members.

Additionally, he has to pay restitution of about $1,800, including payments to the owner of one of the dogs that was killed and $567.29 to the Animal Welfare League of Arlington.

If Zachary does all of that, the proposed plea agreement states, the Commonwealth and the defendant will jointly ask the court to withdraw the guilty plea and provide an order of dismissal. If the defendant doesn’t adhere to the above conditions, he could be sent to prison.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Taft was elected in 2019 to be Arlington’s top prosecutor on a platform of reform and restorative justice. In an interview with Arlington Magazine last March, Dehghani-Taft said that the concept of restorative justice is about healing and taking responsibility.

“It asks the person who did the harm to search for change and transforms them into someone who doesn’t do it again,” she said. “It focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment.”

It’s a concept that also has gained popularity in other local jurisdictions.

When asked for comment about the plea agreement, Dehghani-Taft responded via email that rules “constrains me from making public statements about pending cases… Because the court has not yet accepted any plea, it could be seen as prejudicial for me to say something now.”

In a follow-up email, she stated that “I think the terms in the document the court has published are self-explanatory.”

A statement of facts about the case entered in court describes the April 27, 2020 incident in more detail.

Police responded to a call about two dogs being thrown off a fifth floor balcony of the Meridian apartment building at 1401 N. Taft Street in Courthouse. One belonged to the defendant and the other to his roommate. Both dogs were brought to veterinary facilities and later died from their injuries.

Zachary was detained without incident, but told the officers that he was diagnosed with anxiety and had not been taking his medication. He also said that he had recently smoked marijuana.

The reason for his actions, he told police, was that he wanted to repair his relationship with his roommate and felt the only way to do that was to kill the dogs.

Police spoke to the roommate and Zachary’s boyfriend, who both described the defendant as not acting like his normal self over the prior several days and possibly having a severe mental health crisis at the time.

Photo via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

Va. Supreme Court Passes on Pot Prosecution Case — “The Virginia Supreme Court has rejected an effort by Arlington’s chief prosecutor to rein in judges who are skeptical of her refusal to prosecute marijuana possession. But the court did not resolve the conflict, saying it could not weigh in because it had not been asked to consider any specific case.” [Washington Post]

Big Response to Mailbox — “‘We’ve collected at least probably 500 letters in the two weeks that we’ve had the [Santa] mailbox out,’ Rachael Tolman, the Park Manager at Gulf Branch Park said. ‘It’s a lot of letters.’ The lists some children put in the mailbox looked different, with requests for masks and good health.” [WUSA 9]

Nonprofit Merger Complete — “Bridges to Independence, a Northern Virginia provider of housing and vital services for at-risk families and individuals, has finalized its merger with the Bonder and Amanda Johnson Community Development Corp., a community-based non-profit with a mission to address the health, education, financial empowerment and social service needs of people living in Arlington’s Green Valley neighborhood.” [InsideNova]

Pedestrian Struck in Ballston — “Police and medics on scene of a pedestrian struck by a driver in front of the Ballston Harris Teeter on N. Glebe Road. So far, the victim’s injuries sound minor.” [Twitter]

Holiday Pop-Ups in National Landing — “As part of National Landing’s mission to activate public spaces, the BID has unveiled ‘Turn Up the Love,’ a winterlong campaign featuring a series of engaging outdoor pop-ups. These festive installations include a larger-than-life boombox adorned with thousands of colorful ornaments, three shareable photo frames and even more surprises to be announced after the holidays.” [National Landing BID]

Nearby: BB Gun Shootings in FC — “Police investigated calls of vandalism and found a teen who confessed to at least 50 incidents of shooting vehicles and people. Some victims have been identified, but police believe there may be more.” [City of Falls Church]

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(Updated at noon) The Arlington County Circuit Court rejected a plea bargain that would place a Maryland man on two years of probation for allegedly bringing 50 pounds of marijuana and 400 cartridges of hashish oil into the county.

The suspect is accused of arriving on a flight to Reagan National Airport in November 2018 with a checked bag stuffed with drugs. He was arrested by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority at baggage claim.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti and the attorney representing the alleged drug carrier agreed that the defendant would plead guilty to two felony charges and be placed on probation, wrote the presiding judge. After completing the probation and 200 hours of community service, he would be able to withdraw the pleas to the felony charges and instead plead guilty to two misdemeanor charges while having a $100 fine imposed but then suspended.

Judge Daniel Fiore, II, in a memorandum of opinion that was obtained by ARLnow, said the punishment would not deter the defendant, or anyone else, from carrying large amounts of drugs into Virginia for distribution.

“Virginia jurisprudence has long and consistently recognized deterrence as means for a court to determine an appropriate sentence, no matter the criminal statute violated,” Fiore wrote. “Deterrence disincentives unlawful behavior both for the individual and for society.”

Excerpts of Fiore’s opinion were published in late September in Virginia Lawyers Weekly. A call to judge’s chambers was not returned. Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow that she could not comment on the case at this point.

This rejected bargain is part of a larger theater taking place across the nation, as some prosecutors are changing their approach to drug crimes and judges are fighting back. The tug-of-war reached Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who signed a law last month that would require judges to dismiss charges when both the prosecution and defense agree to a bargain or deal.

Fiore wrote that he rejected the bargain in part because the prosecution and defense had understated how much marijuana and hashish the defendant had. The amounts, once disclosed, merited prison sentences between five and 40 years and fines of up to $500,000, Fiore wrote.

Focusing on the quantity of drugs strikes Public Defender Brad Haywood as a bit naive, considering the defendant was likely a low-level “drug mule” put in a high-risk situation by higher-level drug traffickers. He might not have known the quantity of drugs he was carrying, as mules often do not, Haywood said in an email, adding that mules are often thought of as victims of drug trafficking.

“They are under duress; fearful for their safety, desperate for money, or desperate to feed their own addictions,” he said. “They are easy to manipulate precisely because they are suffering. They can even be pressured into doing something as irrational as traveling on a plane with tons of narcotics.”

Given the risk involved, mules are often caught, Haywood said. Instead of harshly prosecuting mules, however, the government frequently offers them leniency so they can help apprehend the supplier.

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