Each year several bills are introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates or the Virginia Senate, but only a few get passed and approved into law. One of the bills that was introduced and passed during this year’s session will expand protective orders in Virginia in an interesting way. The bill, House Bill No. 972, effectively grants judges in Virginia the authority to award pet possession as part of protective orders. This new law will go into effect on July 1, 2014.
Under current Virginia law, a person who has been a victim of violence, force, or threat that has resulted in bodily injury or places them in reasonable apprehension of the same, can seek a protective order. As explained in Protective Orders in Virginia, these orders can be sought via a court or a magistrate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on an emergency basis. After the initial issuance of an emergency protective order, the order can be extended into a preliminary protective order, and eventually a permanent protective order, which can remain in effect for up to two years, if necessary. Under the current law, a judge can include in a protective order a myriad of protections for the petitioner, such as:
- exclusion of the respondent from a residence which is shared by the parties;
- prohibition of any acts of violence against the petitioner, or any contact with the petitioner;
- prevention of the respondent from terminating utilities at the parties’ shared residence; and even
- an award to the petitioner of exclusive use of a vehicle which is owned by either of the parties.
Under House Bill No. 972, courts in Virginia will now be able to use protective orders to grant petitioners possession of any “companion animal” which may be shared by the parties, so long as the petitioner is considered an owner. This authority extends to all protective orders, including preliminary and emergency protective orders. For the purposes of the this new law, a companion animal is generally any family pet, to include dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits which are not for consumption, reptiles and birds. Farm animals, game species or animals which are being held for research are not considered companion animals for these purposes. A petitioner will be considered an owner of an animal so long as the petitioner has a property right in the animal, keeps or houses the animal, has the animal in their care or has acted as a custodian of the animal.
Respondents who violate a protective order provision granting possession of a companion animal can be held in civil contempt of court and suffer criminal penalties.