{child_flags:top_story}CA race

focuses on discretion, experience

{child_byline}By TYLER HAMMEL

thammel@dailyprogress.com | (434) 978-7268 {/child_byline}

The 2019 race for Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney has been a contentious one, with the candidates taking very different stances on a variety of key issues.

Republican prosecutor Robert Tracci is seeking a second term against Democrat Jim Hingeley, the founder of the Albemarle-Charlottesville Public Defender Office.

The use of prosecutorial discretion, which refers to the ability of a commonwealth’s attorney to decide how a case will proceed through court, has divided the candidates.

Hingeley said a prosecutor should use this ability to help address perceived issues within the legal system by employing it more broadly than Tracci has during his first term.

As an example, Hingeley suggested using discretion to lower a felony shoplifting charge to a misdemeanor. This would still hold the individual responsible for their actions without sending them to prison for as many as five years — the maximum allowed by guidelines for a third shoplifting charge.

“I want to make it clear that a prosecutor has the right to use prosecution discretion and the way I look at it is that it is a tool to achieve justice and a very important tool,” he said in an interview with the Progress. “That’s what this election is about — what are the values that this community has that should inform the prosecutor’s exercise of discretion.”

Tracci has repeatedly rebuffed the idea of using prosecutorial discretion in the way Hingeley advocates, arguing that a prosecutor should not “reform” the law — that ability should be left to lawmakers.

“This extreme view transforms a commonwealth’s attorney into a lawless activist who assumes the role of legislator, prosecutor, defense lawyer, judge and jury,” Tracci said. “A commonwealth’s attorney must respect and enforce the law, not ignore or subvert the law.”

The candidates also have traded accusations that the other lacks the experience necessary to fill the role.

Tracci, who worked as a special assistant attorney general under the presidential administrations of George Bush and Barack Obama, argues that Hingeley’s experience as a defense attorney does not translate to prosecution.

“My opponent has no prosecution experience, and stated at the Senior Statesman of Virginia candidate forum that prosecutors go to court to gather facts and to see what judges consider appropriate,” Tracci wrote. “This view is at war with the obligation of a prosecutor to only bring cases supported by probable cause, and a notion alien to anyone with a passing understanding of the law.”

Hingeley disagrees and has argued that his 40-plus years as an attorney and his work leading the Albemarle-Charlottesville Public Defender’s Office has given him an intimate understanding of prosecution and the court system.

During various debates and candidate forums, Hingeley has accused Tracci of making “rookie mistakes,” pointing specifically to a dismissal of a perjury charge against lead Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler.

The charge was dismissed by Albemarle Circuit Judge Cheryl Higgins after she ruled the prosecution failed to establish that the incident took place in the county.

“Tracci has shown he does not have the experience needed and because of his rookie mistake a guilty man walked free and a victim did not get justice,” Hingeley said.

Tracci was unsuccessful in arguing that the evidence showed proper venue, but has since cited a transcript of his cross-examination of Kessler in which he asks him if the Magistrate’s Office was located in Albemarle County.

Regardless of whether Higgins had ruled venue was properly established, Tracci said he takes issue with implications Hingeley has made that the dismissal helped enable the deadly Unite the Right rally.

Despite various differences, both candidates advocate for alternatives to incarceration, such as a mental health docket — which diverts low-level offenders who present with mental health and substance abuse needs — and expanding rehabilitation and re-entry opportunities.

Hingeley also has suggested the creation of a community advisory council, similar to a group from the Albemarle-Charlottesville Public Defender’s Office that helped create what would eventually become the mental health docket.

Sheriff

Chip Harding, who is retiring as Albemarle County Sheriff, will be replaced by one of two people vying for his position.

Chan Bryant, the Democratic candidate, joined the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office as a full-time deputy sheriff in 2006 and became the first woman to rise to the rank of sergeant, according to her campaign. She was promoted to chief deputy in 2015.

Bryant, who has received Harding’s endorsement, has pledged to bring the D.A.R.E. anti-drug program back to Albemarle County Public Schools and to implement a community program that helps check on elderly residents.

“The county police department gets a lot of welfare calls from concerned family about our elderly residents,” she said. “Getting a program established can help take the stress off of the police department and give peace of mind to their families.”

Despite the unusual move to run as a Democrat, Bryant has pledged that politics do not play a role in her decisions.

Independent candidate Ronnie Roberts has proposed similar programs and carries a decades-long career in the Charlottesville and Louisa police departments.

Roberts, who retired from the Charlottesville Police Department in 2014 before going on to serve as chief of police for the town of Louisa, said it was important for him to run as an independent candidate.

“I’m running as an independent candidate because I represent everybody, I don’t represent a party,” he said. “As a law enforcement officer, I care about the people and building relationships of trust with my communities.”

Both candidates said they would vote continue the current Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail ICE notification policy.

Other offices

Llezelle Dugger, Charlottesville’s clerk of court, is running unopposed for reelection.

Dugger, a Democrat, has been in the position since 2012. She previously served as a public defender and as a member of the Charlottesville School Board.

Incumbents Lonnie M. Murray and Steven G. Meeks are running for reelection to the Soil and Water Conservation Thomas Jefferson District board of directors. In Charlottesville, incumbent Joseph W. Thompson is running for reelection to the same board.

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