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Bill advances to remove suicide as common law crime in Virginia

(Photo courtesy - Capital News Service)
(Photo courtesy - Capital News Service)

Mental health advocates and families who have lost loved ones are hopeful state lawmakers will abolish the common law crime of suicide.

Suicide is currently a crime under Virginia common law, with no punishment. Because it is classified a crime, there can be other impacts on families. 

This story was reported and written by our media partner Capital News Service

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, introduced House Bill 81, which passed the House in a bipartisan, 62-37 vote. 

Lawmakers have tried multiple times in the last decade to pass the bill. 

“It's been out there for a long time,” Simon said. “It's not a new idea.”

The bill recently passed the Senate Courts of Justice Committee with an amendment that delays its enactment until July 2025.

The Bureau of Insurance of the State Corporation Commission will report any effect and implications on insurance by November, as part of the amended bill. This would allow adjustments to be made to state code if needed, Simon said during the Senate committee hearing. 

Simon added the amendment because the proposal has died in previous sessions over questions about the impact to insurance policies.

Over 1,200 people in the state diedby suicide in 2021, according to the Virginia Department of Health. It was the second leading cause of death among ages 9-18 between 2016-2020. 

There are several ways people are affected by suicide being a common law crime, Simon said. 

He was approached by individuals whose family members died by suicide. They were impacted not only by the loss of loved ones, but also by having their loved ones labeled as criminals, Simon said. 

Military survivors cannot claim survivors benefits if their loved one dies by suicide. If an individual’s spouse was killed in the line of duty, the individual would receive a tax exemption. Because suicide is considered a criminal act, the survivor is not eligible to receive a tax exemption, Simon said.

Supporters of Simon’s bill also asked how a first responder or soldier can receive a medal for valor, but in Virginia, would still be considered a common-law criminal.

Four of the officers who defended the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection died by suicide. The officer deaths prompted pressure on Congress to extend line-of-duty benefits to families of those who die by suicide, according to a New York Times report

It is hypocritical to speak of suicide prevention and then to leave the crime of suicide on the books, supporters of Simon’s bill stated

Loved ones of Virginians lost to suicide have also tried to pursue wrongful death lawsuits, but were unsuccessful because suicide is considered a criminal act. 

A point of opposition against the bill is the belief that the law change would also make assisted suicide legal. Simon has argued this is not the intention of his bill, and there is a different statute for assisted suicide.

 “So you have to convince people that this isn't what that's about,” Simon said. “It is what it says on its face.”

Assisted suicide is a civil offense in Virginia. Suicide is still a criminal act in Virginia, so someone who participated could be considered an accessory to the crime. Lawmakers have voiced concern that decriminalizing suicide would eliminate a way to prosecute an accessory, Simon said.

Senate Bill 280 would allow a terminally ill adult age 18 and over to end their life through a health care provider without it being deemed unprofessional conduct. The bill passed the Senate on a party-line vote and was referred to the House Courts of Justice committee.

The equivalent HB 858 advanced through committees but died because it was not voted on before cross over day. 

“I think most people can separate the two issues; the issue of assisted suicide and the issue of how we classify people who have taken their own life and whether we classify them as criminals or not,” Simon said.

The classification of suicide as a crime is not a deterrent from the act itself, Simon said. States that have already abolished the common law crime of suicide such as Maryland and New York have not seen an increase in suicide.

Simon is hopeful the bill will pass into law this year. 

Several of the largest U.S. suicide prevention groups, including the military Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, supported decriminalization of the suicide common law crime the last time Simon carried the bill, according to a fact sheet. 

“The governor has to be convinced that it is what it is,” Simon said. “So there's one step at a time, but I feel good about it.”

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.