RICHMOND -- Mental health reforms prompted by last year's Virginia Tech shootings take effect today, along with a host of laws that include a new surcharge at the Department of Motor Vehicles and new penalties for underage drinkers who get behind the wheel after consuming alcohol.
Gov. Tim Kaine signed 884 bills passed by the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year, and many of them take effect today. Few of the new laws have received as much attention as those that reform the state's mental health system, which came under intense scrutiny after a mentally ill student killed 32 people and himself on the Tech campus last year.
Lawmakers passed more than 30 bills dealing with issues raised by the shootings, and approved nearly $42 million in new spending over two years to help implement mental health reforms.
Gunman Seung-Hui Cho had a history of behavioral problems and had been ordered to get outpatient treatment by a Montgomery County special justice 16 months before the shootings. But no one made sure Cho complied with the treatment order.
Lawmakers broadened the standard the state uses to commit individuals to mental health treatment against their will and moved to improve monitoring of people under outpatient treatment orders. They also extended the periods allowed for emergency custody and temporary detention orders and required representatives of local community services boards to participate in commitment hearings.
Local community services boards, which are responsible for coordinating community-based mental health services, have been working with state officials and local courts to prepare for the changes. Some changes will be implemented easily and some will take time, said Mary Ann Bergeron, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards.
"This is not just a simple little tweak," Bergeron said. "This is changing a law and putting a whole new one in place."
Other laws taking effect today include a new fee structure for renewing vehicle registrations. Customers will be charged a $5 fee to renew their registrations at DMV customer service centers, but can avoid it by renewing online, by mail or phone, or at mini-DMV contract offices. The DMV will award a $1 discount to customers who renew online.
The change is designed to encourage customers to avoid going to DMV offices for easy transactions. The agency notes that only a few transactions, such as applying for an original driver's license, require a visit to a customer service center.
"We encourage customers to read their renewal notices thoroughly so they will understand the new law and how to avoid the $5 fee associated with it," said DMV Commissioner D.B. Smit in an agency news release.
Beginning today, driver's licenses issued by DMV will be valid for eight years instead of five. An eight-year renewal will cost $32.
Virginia also will get tougher today on underage drinkers who drive. Under a new "zero tolerance" policy, a driver younger than 21 with a blood-alcohol content as low as 0.02 percent could face up to a year in jail, a year without a driver's license and either a minimum fine of $500 or 50 hours of community service.
The state also will begin to crack down on organized animal fighting, enforcing laws passed after last year's dogfighting conviction of former Tech football star Michael Vick. Dogfighting becomes a felony, as do all forms of animal fighting that involve gambling or take place in front of minors.
Some high-profile measures passed by the General Assembly won't take effect until Jan. 1. Those include new restrictions on payday lenders and new regulations governing commercial dog-breeding operations.
New laws taking effect today
Driver’s licenses. Licenses will remain valid for eight years instead of five, and will continue to cost $4 per year. A $5 fee will be charged for in-person vehicle registration renewals at DMV customer service centers. Drivers can avoid the fee by renewing online (www.dmvnow.com), by phone (1-888-337-4782), by mail or at DMV Select offices.
Driver training. Driver’s license applicants who fail the behind-the-wheel or knowledge exams three times must complete the in-vehicle or knowledge portion of driving instruction at a driver training school before taking the test a fourth time.
Underage drinking and driving. Under a new “zero tolerance” law, drivers younger than 21 with a blood-alcohol content of 0.02 percent face a Class 1 misdemeanor, loss of driver’s license for a year, and either a minimum fine of $500 or 50 hours of community service.
Learner’s permits. The driving hours required to get a learner’s permit increase from 40 to 45, and 15 must occur after sunset.
Involuntary commitment. New standards make it easier to commit individuals for mental health treatment against their will. New laws extend the periods allowed for emergency custody and temporary detention orders and require representatives of local community services boards to participate in commitment hearings.
Criminal background checks. Courts must report involuntary mental health commitments to the Central Criminal Records Exchange, which is used to check backgrounds of firearms buyers.
Credit reports. Virginians can freeze access to credit reports. After freezing access, consumers must authorize any release of the information by credit-reporting agencies.
Pyramid schemes. A new law clearly defines the activities of pyramid promotional schemes. In addition to a Class 1 misdemeanor for devising, operating and promoting a pyramid scheme, the practice becomes a violation of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.
Counterfeiting. Trademark infringement becomes a Class 1 misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of a year in jail. The crime becomes a felony if the offender has 100 or more identical counterfeit registered marks or possesses counterfeit items valued at $200 or more.
Religious discrimination. Schools are prohibited from discriminating against students for expressing religious viewpoints in homework, artwork or other assignments.
School buses. Bus drivers are prohibited from talking on cellphones or using other wireless devices while driving, except for two-way radios.
Organized fighting. Organized animal fighting, such as cockfighting, becomes a Class 1 misdemeanor and dogfighting remains a felony. Organized animal fights that involve gambling or that take place in front of minors also become a felony.
Sangria. Sangria can flow freely as Virginia repeals its Prohibition-era law making it illegal for restaurants to mix wine or beer with liquor.
Education course. By July 1, 2009, people 20 and younger must pass a boating-safety class to operate boats, personal watercraft or watercraft with motors of 10 horsepower or greater. Other age groups are phased in over the next seven years.