By Paul Ferguson
Recently, the editor of the Falls Church News-Press asked me, “What will be different with a new Commonwealth Attorney?” Although the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office is a neutral party serving all equally, I have some perspective on this question because there are many instances where the Clerk’s Office works closely with the Office of the Commonwealth Attorney.
The new Commonwealth Attorney for the City of Falls Church and Arlington, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, started on Jan. 1. My observation after one week is that the transition is going well. Ms. Dehghani-Tafti maintained many of the attorneys and staff from the previous administration including Cari Steele, who was promoted to the position of Chief Deputy. She has also hired prosecutors who previously worked in the Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office.
Ms. Dehghani-Tafti has promised numerous policy changes. She has stated that her general policy is not to prosecute small amounts of marijuana possession, but she will review each case on an individual basis. On Jan. 2, she filed a motion to dismiss three simple marijuana possession cases. It will be interesting to watch how these cases proceed in both the General District and Circuit Courts. Also, the General Assembly may pass a law decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana possession. If there is a change in the law, it will likely take effect July 1.
I asked Ms. Dehghani-Tafti if her policies would result in less total criminal cases. Her answer was “not necessarily.” She cited wage theft and fraud cases that are difficult to prosecute as challenges she intends to take on. She also stated that “serious crimes” will be prosecuted vigorously with her personal involvement.
Ms. Dehghani-Tafti has promised an “open file discovery policy.” She is putting policies in place allowing for electronic transmission and scanning of information in the Commonwealth’s files. Defense attorneys have told me this makes it easier to work on their cases including trial preparation when they can receive information electronically and scan documents when visiting the office.
As a general rule, Ms. Dehghani-Tafti has promised not to ask for cash bail. The policy reason is that lower income individuals potentially spend more time in jail than is ultimately called for if they are convicted. It is possible the case may not be prosecuted after review by the Commonwealth Attorney. This policy still allows judges to set cash bail. It also allows for no cash bail or bond for defendants considered to be potentially dangerous to the community by the prosecutor and/or judge.
Ms. Dehghani-Tafti has successfully obtained grant funding for a staff person who will work on Restorative Justice for victims of crime. If the victim is interested, a Restorative Justice coordinator can facilitate meetings between victims and offenders. Many victims have stated in interviews that Restorative Justice helped the healing process. Offenders have stated that Restorative Justice helped them with re-entry back into society.
It is my hope that most reading this column have not had to go through the criminal justice system either as a victim or a defendant. Many of you may have served on jury duty or may do so in the future. I thank you for fulfilling this important civic duty.
It is also my hope that as a result of a highly publicized election for Commonwealth Attorney this past year, more people will take an interest in the court system. There are volunteer opportunities through many non-profits like OAR, CASA and DOORWAYS where you can assist those who are going through a court process. There is also a need for volunteer Guardians. If you are interested in contacting these organizations, they will provide training. You do not need to be an attorney to volunteer and assist.
Although this column is not about the Office of the Circuit Court Clerk, I would like to take the opportunity to let all Falls Church residents know we are ready to assist them if needed. Some of the reasons for visiting the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office in Arlington are to get a copy of your property deed, file a will for safekeeping, apply for a marriage license or get a certified copy.
I appreciate the partnership that Falls Church has with Arlington. Thanks to the Falls Church News-Press for asking my thoughts this week and continuing to provide excellent local news coverage.
Paul Ferguson is the clerk of the Circuit Court for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.