In a year of unusual turnover in city constitutional offices, former Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Deaton has announced he is a candidate to regain his old job, intending to be on the ballot for the Democratic nomination in this year's June primary election.
Deaton served as the city's Commonwealth's Attorney from 1990 to 1994. He was elected in 1989 upon the retirement of Dick Barrick but, when he sought re-election in 1993, he narrowly lost renomination by the Democratic party. According to his recollection, 300 people attended the city Democratic party's nominating convention, and he received 148 votes while Warner D. “Dave” Chapman received 152 votes.
Chapman went on to win unopposed in the 1993 general election, and he has not faced a general election opponent in two decades.
Turnover and turmoil
Deaton chose to throw his hat in the ring because he sees an opportunity in the “turmoil” among the city's five constitutional offices.
Commissioner of Revenue Lee Richards, who was also first elected in 1993 and has never had a general election opponent, announced his retirement in January. Last October, City Treasurer Jennifer Brown resigned for health reasons, with a special election for that office set for April 2. Brown was also elected for the first time in 1993 and never had a general election opponent.
Deaton said he does not know if Chapman is “going to run or not but I've heard some other names” of potential candidates.
“We don't know what's going to happen and in a year with a whole lot of turmoil in constitutional offices, perhaps there will be other opponents in the November election,” he said. “I don't know and I don't assume that there's not going to be” even though there has been no contested race for Commonwealth's Attorney for 40 years or more.
Deaton gave his first media interview since announcing his candidacy to the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner, admitting to having a “libertarian streak” of his own. His libertarian tendencies are clear from some of his views on criminal-justice issues, which he offered on a quiet Sunday afternoon (February 17) at the University of Virginia Law School.
With regard to jury nullification – when juries judge both the facts of the case and the law -- for instance, he said, “I think it's an approved practice. It should be approved. I don't have any problem with it.”
Sometimes, he explained, “when you have jury nullification, it means the prosecutors are out of touch with the community.”
Deaton recalled a case from the 1980s, when his predecessor prosecuted an adult bookstore in Charlottesville. The obscenity case, he said, went to trial twice, and two juries acquitted the defendants.
He remembered that the prosecution had provided, as evidence in the case, various sex toys that had been for sale in the book store. When he was at the court house, “you could hear the jurors laughing back there” in the jury room as they were handling the evidence, despite efforts to soundproof the room.
This, he noted, “goes to the mores of the society.” Obscenity laws rely on local standards but “I think perhaps it kind of ought to be that way on other things, like drugs.”
As to the proposal now before Charlottesville's City Council to de-emphasize prosecutions for marijuana possession within city limits, Deaton said “I think that idea is fine. I wouldn't have any problem with it at all, if they want to do that.”
He went on to explain that, “as a society we change our standards over the years. We've changed many things and drugs is something that the community should have some input into the process [so] if that's the feeling of the community, as represented by the City Council, I don't have any problem with that.”
Deaton also said he has concerns about mandatory minimum sentences imposed by legislatures.
“I have a real problem with mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes. I have a real problem with that,” he said. “I think that whenever you have mandatory sentences, what it means is the legislators do not trust the judges. Whether state legislators or federal legislators, it means they don't trust the judges to do the right thing.”
Ultimately, he said, legislatively-imposed mandatory sentences are an infringement on separation of powers: “If we have an independent judiciary, do we really want to be tying [judges'] hands?”
Restoring felons' rights
Deaton also emphasized that he supports “the restoration of rights to people who have been convicted of non-violent felonies. I think it's very important. I wrote an article recently [that argued] if we're going to have these people in the community, we don't want to handicap them with a felony conviction and all the loss of rights that that entails.”
Instead of taking away the rights of felons who have served their sentences, he said, “Let's try to work them back into the community. Let's not make them into pariahs. They need to feel that they have a stake in the community, not that they're outside” of it.
Felons should be punished, he said. “I believe in punishment – but don't handicap them [so] they can't live their lives after they've finished their punishment.”
Deaton does not yet have a campaign web site but he said it will be up soon “so people can get in touch” with him.