A federal judge in Alexandria agreed with legal arguments for two U.S. Park Police officers after they pursued a 25-year-old motorist in 2017 and fatally shot him in his Jeep.
Judge Claude Hilton dismissed criminal charges against the officers on Friday (Oct. 22), writing in an opinion that McLean resident Bijan Ghaisar was driving erratically after another vehicle hit his Jeep on George Washington Memorial Parkway, leading the officers on a pursuit.
Hilton wrote in his decisions for officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard that they “were authorized by federal law to act as they did” and “the officers did no more than was necessary and proper.”
The officers sought immunity under the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which gives federal laws and powers precedence over those of a state.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano and Attorney General Mark Herring said in a joint statement that the state plans to appeal the case in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
“[We] do not believe the law allows an individual to circumvent the accountability of the criminal justice system simply because of who their employer is,” the joint statement said. “We believe that a jury should have the opportunity to hear all of the evidence and determine whether these men committed a crime when they shot and killed Bijan Ghaisar.”
According to Hilton’s ruling, a dispatcher initially told police that Ghaisar’s vehicle hit another vehicle but then corrected that information, saying the Jeep was hit. The crash involving a Toyota Corolla occurred in Alexandria just north of Slater’s Lane on Nov. 17, 2017.
The court wrote that Ghaisar ignored officers’ commands to stop and pull over, failed to stop at a stop sign, and repeatedly drove away while Amaya’s hand was placed on Ghasiar’s door handle.
When Amaya approached the vehicle on foot around Tulane Drive and ordered him to open the door, Ghaisar took off while Amaya’s hand was on the door, the court wrote.
Police later pulled him over in a residential neighborhood off the parkway and yelled commands at Ghaisar on foot, but Ghaisar drove away again, according to the court.
When the officers pulled him over at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue, they exited the patrol car. Amaya shouted commands to Ghaisar when his Jeep lurched forward toward Amaya, prompting him to fire through the Jeep’s windshield.
“The Jeep initially stopped but then moved forward again, causing both officers to fire at Ghaisar,” the court wrote. “The Jeep then rolled over into a ditch.”
Ghaisar placed the officers in a life-or-death situation, the judge found.
“The officers’ decision to discharge their firearms was necessary and proper under the circumstances and there is no evidence that the officers acted with malice, criminal intent, or any improper motivation,” the judge wrote.
It wasn’t immediately clear how a postponed federal wrongful death lawsuit by Ghaisar’s father against the U.S. will proceed.
Ghaisar’s family, the McLean community, and elected officials have criticized the Park Police and FBI over their handling of the investigation into the shooting, including the prolonged withholding of the identities of the officers involved.
Federal prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice ultimately announced in November 2019 that they would not pursue charges against Amaya and Vinyard.
Descano put together a grand jury last year, and the officers were indicted in October 2020, both with a charge of manslaughter and another for reckless discharge of a firearm.
Virginia Requires Vaccinations for All State Workers — About 122,000 state employees must show proof that they have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 1 or undergo weekly testing with proof of a negative result, Gov. Ralph Northam said yesterday (Thursday). Noting that 98% of COVID hospitalizations since January have been unvaccinated people, he encouraged local governments and businesses to adopt similar mandates. [Office of the Governor]
Woman Shot by Fairfax County Police Officer Charged — “Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis on Thursday released body-camera video of the July police shooting of a resident of a group home for the intellectually disabled…Police identified the woman who was shot as 30-year-old Jiyoung Lee of Springfield. Lee, who was later charged with assault on an officer, was taken to the hospital following the shooting and is still recovering.” [The Washington Post]
County Prosecutor Launches New Specialized Units — Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano announced on Tuesday (Aug. 4) that his office has established two new teams that will focus exclusively on domestic violence cases and crimes against children. The units will consist of 15 new prosecutors who will all be trained in working with victims of trauma. [WTOP]
Capital One Hall to Hold Job Fair — Scheduled to open on Oct. 2, Capital One Hall (7750 Capital One Tower Road) in Tysons will hold a job fair from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5-8 p.m. on Tuesday (Aug. 10) as the performance venue prepares for its inaugural season. Available positions include bartenders, cooks, banquet servers, dishwashers, security, audiovisual technicians, and more. [Capital One Hall/Twitter]
County Leaders Frustrated by State Funding for Prosecutors — Fairfax County leaders say Virginia’s current formula to determine funding for Commonwealth’s Attorney offices undermines criminal justice reform efforts by rewarding localities that seek incarceration over diversion. A 15-month, state-commissioned study of the issue is set to launch this month. [The Washington Post]
Progress on Unemployment Rate Stalls — “Like much of Northern Virginia, Fairfax County’s jobless rate has improved substantially from the depths of the COVID crisis a year before, but now seems struck in neutral as it attempts to return to pre-pandemic lows…Fairfax’s jobless rate of 3.7 percent in May was up a tick from 3.6 a month before, according to figures reported June 30 by the Virginia Employment Commission.” [Sun Gazette/Inside NoVA]
Tysons-Based Engineering Contractor Acquired — “Newport News-based Fortune 500 military shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries will acquire McLean-based defense contractor Alion Science and Technology Corp. from Veritas Capital in a $1.65 billion, all-cash deal, HII announced in a news release Tuesday. The deal is expected to close by the end of this year.” [Virginia Business]
County to Hold Virtual Meeting on Strategic Plan — “Join us July 21 for a virtual community conversation to share your thoughts on the Fairfax Countywide Strategic Plan as we move forward to shape the future of Fairfax County together. Register online.” [Fairfax County Government/Twitter]
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors adopted a balanced budget for fiscal year 2022 yesterday (Tuesday).
The newly adopted budget supports a 1% pay increase for county employees, a 2% raise for Fairfax County Public Schools employees, and 15% salary supplements for staff in the Office of the Public Defender and state probation and parole officers.
“While there were many constraints on this year’s budget, I am tremendously proud of what this Board was able to accomplish,” Board Chairman Jeff McKay said. “My goal was to look for balance in lowering the tax rate, with the understanding of skyrocketing property assessments, while also supporting our County employees and teachers and furthering our priorities in education, affordable housing, environmental protection, and community resources. I am pleased we were able to achieve that.”
The proposed budget from February did not include pay increases for employees, whose pay was frozen in this year’s budget. The new 1% pay increase comes after Fairfax County employees advocated for salary bumps last month.
“The 1% wage increase and one-time bonus come as a response to union members making it clear that two years of frozen pay for essential county workers was unacceptable,” SEIU Virginia 512 Fairfax Chapter President Tammie Wondong said. “We appreciate the approved change. That being said, the concessions fall short of the agreed-upon pay plan and workers are falling behind.”
The county employees’ union will now focus on its push for Fairfax County to adopt a collective bargaining ordinance. A new state law permitting localities to establish collective bargaining procedures took effect on May 1.
McKay told Tysons Reporter last week that county staff is currently drafting an ordinance that will be discussed at the board’s personnel committee meeting on May 25.
“Meaningful collective bargaining is the only way workers can ensure that the county keeps their promise on our pay plans so that we have the resources to provide the best services to the Fairfax community,” Wondong said.
The increase will be funded using $20 million that County Executive Bryan Hill had recommended setting aside in an “Economic Recovery Reserve.” As the county looks to rebuild, it will instead lean on the $222 million in federal relief funds it expects to receive from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“The redirection of this reserve does not exacerbate budgetary challenges in FY 2023,” the final budget document reads. “With this reserve, funding just shy of $30 million is available to be utilized for employee pay in FY 2022.”
Here are some other highlights:
As proposed in February, the real estate tax rate will decrease from $1.15 per $100 of assessed value to $1.14 per $100 of assessed value. Personal property tax rates and stormwater fees will remain the same, at $4.57 per $100 of assessed value and $0.0325 per $100 of assessed value, respectively.
As considered during the budget markup last week, the refuse disposal fee will decrease from $68 to $66 per ton, but the refuse collection fee will increase from $370 to $400 per household. The rate was reduced from $385 last year because of a reduction in yard waste collection services during the pandemic.
Funding for county government operations and contributions to Metro and Fairfax County Public Schools, or general fund disbursements, totals $4.53 billion. That marks a slight increase from the advertised $4.48 million, and an increase of $55.40 million over the current fiscal year’s disbursements.
More than half of those disbursements (52.6%, or $2.38 billion) support Fairfax County Public Schools. This includes $2.17 billion for operations, $197.12 million for debt service and $13.10 million for school construction.
Fairfax County will create 109 additional positions in FY 2022 to staff new facilities, such as the South County Police Station, a new 61,000-square-foot police station and animal shelter, and the Scotts Run Fire Station. Positions are also being added for the county’s opioid task force and Diversion First initiative.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano says the budget marks an important first step toward solving Fairfax’s “longstanding justice crisis,” adding that the 15 new positions his office has been allocated will enable prosecutors to take on more cases.
“As the budget takes effect in July and we fill those, we will be able to expand our caseload to encompass all cases other than minor traffic infractions,” the Commonwealth Attorney’s office said. “We are already scaling up our caseload now and are prioritizing cases that contain an indication of violence between now and July.”
Descano says his office will complement its expanded case load with a “growing use of diversion and alternative sentencing to ensure we are keeping the community safe in a manner that accords with our values.”
Additional staffing alone won’t solve the problem, however. Descano says a multi-year investment is needed to address the “chronic shortcomings that plagued our system,” including a culture of producing as many convictions as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Charts via Fairfax County
Phase 2 of COVID-19 Vaccinations Begins — Fairfax County officially entered Phase 2 of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout yesterday, making everyone 16 and older eligible. With the county retiring its registration system, appointments can be scheduled directly with providers through VaccineFinder, though limited supplies means they might be initially hard to come by. [Fairfax County Health Department/Twitter]
Man Found Dead in Bailey’s Crossroads — An Alexandria resident has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder after a man was found dead around 3:30 a.m. in a parking garage in the 5100 block of Leesburg Pike in Baileys Crossroads. Hernan Leiva, 58, of Falls Church had apparent stab wounds and blunt force trauma to his upper body. [FCPD]
Descano Seeks to Vacate Convictions by Fairfax County Police Officer — “Fairfax County prosecutors are moving to throw out more than 400 criminal convictions based on the testimony or work of a former patrol officer who is accused of stealing drugs from the police property room, planting drugs on innocent people and stopping motorists without legal basis, court filings show.” [The Washington Post]
Pharmacy Workers Sentenced for $8 Million Fraud — Six people have been sentenced to prison for healthcare fraud that involved paying and receiving kickbacks and billing health care benefit programs for expensive, unnecessary drugs and equipment. One defendant owned several pharmacies in Northern Virginia, including the now-closed Medex Health Pharmacy in Merrifield. [U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia]
Park Road in McLean Closed for Pipe Replacement — “Park Road between Kirby Road and Old Dominion Drive, and Vermont Avenue between Massachusetts Avenue and Park Road will be closed to through traffic, weather permitting, from 7 a.m. Monday, April 19 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 20, and then have daily closures Wednesday, April 21 through Friday, April 23 and Monday, April 26 through Tuesday, April 27 to replace a stormwater pipe.” [VDOT]
George Mason High School Demolition Still Underway — “As the demolition of the OLD George Mason H.S. continues, the old Science Wing and Facilities Shop is no more.” [FCCPS Office of Facilities Services/Twitter]
(Updated at 5:45 on 1/21/2021) A Falls Church resident who reportedly shot a teenager and had an armed confrontation with police last month has been indicted on two counts of attempted capital murder.
Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano announced yesterday (Tuesday) that a grand jury also indicted Glenn Allen Meyer, 61, on two counts of using a firearm in the commission of a felony.
“My top priority as Commonwealth’s Attorney is to keep our community safe in a manner that accords with our values,” Descano said in a statement. “I will therefore always act to hold individuals who needlessly attempt to take the lives of others accountable.”
Fairfax County police arrested Meyer on Dec. 19, two days after responding to a report that a 17-year-old boy had been shot in an apartment on Peach Orchard Drive in Falls Church. Upon entering the apartment, two police officers exchanged gunfire with Meyer, ultimately shooting him.
A member of the police SWAT team was also struck by a bullet in the exchange, according to Descano’s statement.
Both Meyer and the teenager were transported to a local hospital and survived their injuries. Meyer is being held at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center without bond.
Upon announcing the indictment, Descano also said that his office “found no violations of criminal law” by the police officers who fired their weapons.
Identified as Master Police Officer Lance Guckenberger and Police Officer First-Class Matthew Grubb earlier this month, the officers were put on administrative leave for the duration of the criminal and administrative investigations into the incident.
The Fairfax County Police Department told Tysons Reporter that both officers have returned to full-duty status following the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s declaration that there was no basis for criminal liability. The department’s internal administrative investigation is still ongoing.
Measures to curb public safety concerns and improve how the criminal justice system can serve the community are being implemented in Fairfax County.
Before responding to audience questions, Descano highlighted three top agenda items: the implementation of body-worn cameras by police, providing appropriate resources for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, and general criminal justice reform.
Descano said the Fairfax County Police Department’s body-worn camera program should be mostly in effect by the end of 2021, estimating that the program will include roughly 1,200 cameras.
“I really do feel that body-worn cameras are essential to creating trust in the community,” Descano said. “They are a great tool for evidence. They are a great tool for police accountability. Quite frankly, they’re also, in many ways, a tool to make sure that our police aren’t being accused of things they did not do. So, it really is a win-win-win all the way around.”
He pointed to the indictment of Fairfax County police officer Tyler Timberlake on three misdemeanor counts of assault and battery in July and other high-profile cases as examples of the difference that body cameras could make in holding police accountable.
According to Descano, footage from the cameras will be stored and transmitted in an integrated system from a server run by the company Axon Enterprise. The footage must be kept according to timeframes established by the Virginia Public Records Act.
He also said the footage is meant to be available to exonerate or prosecute people accused of alleged crimes, protecting innocent people and detecting evidence of crimes to ensure the criminal justice system produces the “right outcome.”
Descano also noted that one “flip side” of the program is that it will add to prosecutors’ workload, since they have an “ethical obligation” to review all evidence in cases they prosecute. He estimated that body-worn cameras will add roughly 89,000 hours of video footage to the approximately 60,000 hours of footage from cruiser dash cameras that must also be reviewed. Read More
The McLean Citizens Association will hold a virtual public forum with Fairfax County’s head prosecutor in two weeks to discuss criminal justice policy and reform.
According to the event announcement, Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano will be present to speak about several justice issues including:
- The Fairfax County Police Department’s body-worn camera program
- The 2020 Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Resources Report
- His request for additional funding to expand staffing for the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and its implications for enforcement of criminal laws in Fairfax County
- An update on criminal justice reform legislation from the 2020 Virginia General Assembly’s special session and what the policy changes mean for Fairfax County
The virtual forum will take place Wednesday (Dec. 16). at 7 p.m.
Photo via McLean Citizens Association/Facebook
Two U.S. Park Police officers have been indicted in the fatal shooting of McLean resident Bijan Ghaisar in 2017, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano announced on Thursday (Oct. 15).
A grand jury handed down indictments with one charge of manslaughter and one for reckless discharge of a firearm against Officers Alejandro Amaya and Lucas W. Vinyard, who remain on paid administrative duty following the shooting, according to The Washington Post.
The indictments represent one of the first significant steps toward legal action against the officers involved in Ghaisar’s killing, a saga that has now spanned three years as his family, the McLean community, and elected officials have criticized the Park Police and FBI for the pace and lack of transparency of their investigations.
“Justice has not yet come for the Ghaisar family, but today is a major step forward in that journey,” Descano said in a statement announcing the indictments. “That journey has a number of steps to go.”
A 25-year-old Langley High School who lived in Tysons and worked as an accountant in McLean, Ghaisar was reportedly involved in a hit-and-run crash in Alexandria on Nov. 17, 2017 that drew the attention of nearby Park Police officers, resulting in an extended car chase on George Washington Memorial Parkway.
An in-car camera video taken by Fairfax County police officers who joined the pursuit as backup showed two Park Police officers, who have since been identified as Amaya and Vinyard, firing into Ghaisar’s vehicle multiple times after he stopped at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue.
Ghaisar died at Inova Fairfax Hospital on Nov. 28, 2017 after spending 10 days in a coma.
While the main investigation of the shooting was handled by the FBI, the Fairfax County Police Department conducted an internal investigation that determined none of its officers had fired their weapons. Chief Ed Roessler released the video footage of the incident in January 2018.
Federal prosecutors with the U.S. Department of Justice ultimately announced in November 2019 that they would not pursue charges against Amaya and Vinyard.
Descano announced on Jan. 30 that the Fairfax County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney would investigate Ghaisar’s shooting, and he eventually convened a special grand jury in September.
The Justice Department’s refusal to produce witnesses for the grand jury and a potential trial has complicated Fairfax County’s investigation, according to Descano, who thanks Roessler and the FCPD for providing evidence and assisting with the case.
“I wish this could have been done in a faster fashion,” Descano said. “However, there is no shortcut to justice. This is a very complex and nuanced case. The pursuit of these indictments involved the careful review of over 11,000 pieces of documentary evidence, the chasing down of additional evidence, and the conducting of in-person interviews and discussions in the midst of a global pandemic.”
Because the defendants are federal officers, Descano says he anticipates that they will file motions to move the case to federal court within the next 30 days.
He also expects the federal government to seek a dismissal on the basis of the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which gives federal laws and powers precedence over those of a state.
According to The Washington Post, a civil wrongful death lawsuit against the Park Police that Ghaisar’s family filed with the U.S. District Court in Alexandria in August 2018 is scheduled to go to trial on Nov. 16.
Image via Fairfax County Police Department
The Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said his overworked, understaffed office is in a state of crisis, which could have deep ramifications for public safety.
“Potentially innocent people could be wrongfully convicted, or guilty people could be left on the street, making our community more vulnerable,” he told the Board of Supervisors in a meeting on Tuesday.
The short-term solution he proposed involves hiring 20 staff for about $2 million. He said this would ensure the office does not fall behind when felony trials resume in November, after being postponed since March due to the coronavirus. The 20 staff would not be enough, for example, to handle the influx of potential evidence that would need independent review if every police officer starts wearing a body camera.
To ramp up the number of cases his office can prosecute thoroughly and ethically, Descano said he needs 137 attorneys and support staff, which would cost $19.1 million.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors said they were surprised to hear Descano’s claim of unethical prosecutions and were experiencing a case of “sticker shock,” said Supervisor James R. Walkinshaw, of Braddock District.
“I think we’re all in a state of shock here,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeffrey C. McKay said.
A plan would need to be developed to address how these changes would impact other areas of law enforcement and justice, including the police department and the Fairfax County Attorney’s office, he said.
“While it is an emergency, we cannot respond to it like an emergency,” McKay said.
Supervisor John Foust, the Dranesville District Representative, told Descano: “You’ve found the problem, but I’m not sure you’ve identified the solution.”
The Office of the Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney prosecutes crimes that occur in Fairfax County and felonies that occur in Fairfax City and the towns of Herndon and Vienna. It tries cases in the county’s district and circuit courts, as well as the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. The office works closely with state, county and local police departments.
But over the course of the year, Descano said he has had to cut back the number and scope of cases his office can prosecute.
The issue is a lack of state and local funding. Fairfax — the biggest jurisdiction in the state — receives less state funding in part because it tries to divert defendants from the criminal justice system. The state funds positions based on the number of defendants who make it to court and the number who are sentenced, Descano said.
He says local funding is low compared to surrounding jurisdictions, which spend up to four times what Fairfax County spends.
“A resident of Fairfax County can spend more on a gallon of milk than on the prosecution of crimes,” he said.
The ratio of officers to prosecutors is also imbalanced: For every prosecutor, there are 33 sworn officers making arrests, meaning prosecutors cannot keep up with the rate of arrests.
“We don’t have the time to do the cases properly,” he said. “The only way to give us more time is to add more staff. The reason we need this is without time, bad things can happen.”
These “bad things” include focusing on getting dockets cleared and farming out independent reviews of evidence to police officers.
“In essence, there were officers making case decisions as if they were attorneys, without the independent review of attorneys,” he said. “We like to think that has never happened in Fairfax County, but I’ve seen evidence that that has happened.”
Supervisor Pat Herrity, the Springfield District Representative, said he needs an executive session to be shown where the ethical issues are.
“I had not heard that before this issue came up and I think we ought to peel the onion on that skin a little bit,” he said.
Deputy County Executive David Rohrer, a former police chief for Fairfax County, defended previous commonwealth’s attorneys as well as the police department.
“I only observed the highest integrity and ethics in their staff,” he said.