What a change one day can make. When does new legislation take effect in your state and how do you find out about it? In Virginia, for example, that day is July 1. On that day every year, the newly passed laws (individually called “statutes”) typically come into effect. Changes in the law can alter the life of the common citizen significantly, overnight. And, for defendants facing criminal prosecution, the changes can be tremendous. It is the obligation of the citizen, ultimately, to know what is legal and illegal. But until a new law is actually published, even lawyers can find it exceedingly difficult to follow the legislative process and to know what changes are underway.
New legislation generally affects the criminal sphere in three different ways. The first is the most fundamental: a new statute can make an act that was previously lawful, illegal. Or, it may remove or alter an existing law thereby making an act which previously was illegal, now legal. A failure to act, called an omission, may also be the subject of a criminal law. So, for example, a new statute could make it unlawful for private motor carriers (Uber or Lyft drivers) to operate without a commercial driver’s license. Or, a new law may rescind an existing statute that had made it illegal to gamble with real money on the internet.
Sometimes, when it comes to prosecuting people, changes in the law have an impact on the prosecution and sometimes they do not. When evaluating whether a person’s actions in the past were legal or illegal, the question is what was the law when the person committed the act. Most states have statutes of limitation which define for how long a person is subject to criminal prosecution, exposing those accused of violent sexual assault or murder to prosecution years or decades after the crime. So when the police solve a cold case from 1979 and charge rape and murder, the defendant will be prosecuted for those crimes as they were defined in 1979. The difference could be very significant. For example, rape in 1979 may have required evidence that the woman physically resisted or almost certainly would not have ever applied to the spouse of the defendant.
A second way in which changes in criminal law can affect prosecution is procedural. Here, the focus is not on what a person was prosecuted for doing, but how they are prosecuted for having done it. The general rule in this category is that judges and lawyers will follow the most current and all new rules regarding the way the trial happens. This applies to things like the admission of evidence, the discovery and exchange of information between the parties and the general rules of trial itself. These sorts of changes are just as important as changes in the definitions of what is criminal. For example, Virginia just enacted a law that prohibits the prosecutor from using evidence gathered during a medical response to an overdose. Thus, in a recent case I had, there was no doubt my client had violated the criminal law by possessing narcotics when he overdosed, but changes in the procedural law that took effect before my client was brought to trial prevented the prosecutor from being able to move forward with the case.
Finally, as the Law Office of Paul C. Galanides, P.C., can explain, new legislation that is not purely of a criminal nature can have an indirect but still significant impact on criminal law. Such situations are somewhat rare and defy categorization, but still happen when legislative bodies sometimes will take a circuitous route to attain their goals or sometimes unknowingly fall prey to the law of unintended consequences. For example, a new law may make it illegal for the state to obtain the chemicals necessary for lethal injection, making it impossible for the state to carry out executions of death sentences.
When making the decision to hire the right attorney, be sure to spend the time to read their biography and confirm if the law firm provides a frequent update of case results on their website.