In circuit court, a tale of two probations

In the two cases before the Rappahannock Court Circuit Court on Tuesday (Sept. 22), one case concerned probation successfully completed and the other, a probation gone awry.

Aaron Winston Coffey, 24, of Flint Hill, appeared to tell the court he had completed the terms of his probation connected with a first-time charge in May 2014 of marijuana possession. At sentencing last September, Judge Jeffrey W. Parker placed Coffey on probation for a year, suspended his license for six months and ordered him to complete the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program (VASAP) and 40 hours of community service. On Tuesday. Parker was pleased. “My compliments to you for completing your probation. Not everyone does this successfully,” he said.

Jason Lee Via, 44, of Spotsylvania, was brought into the courtroom by a deputy, “RSW Inmate” stenciled in block letters on the back of Via’s faded orange-and-white striped uniform. He had no lawyer with him. He was charged with violating the terms of his probation stemming from a charge of driving with a revoked or suspended license in February of 2013. He pleaded guilty in July of that year and was sentenced to 90 days in jail (80 days suspended) and a year of supervised probation.

As soon as he arrived before Parker, Via asked to speak. When Parker said yes, Via asked, “Can we get this over with today?” And he began to explain his circumstances, “You see, I’m homeless — ”

Parker interrupted to explain that the case was not scheduled for adjudication today. “I am trying to understand the gravity of the charge against you,” said Parker. “This is a two-step process. Today is a show cause proceeding, and then later you come back with an attorney to represent you. I just want to make sure your rights are protected.”

Via indicated that he did not want a lawyer and wanted to settle his case immediately.

Goff presented a letter from Via’s probation officer detailing Via’s failure to report, which Parker read and then gave to Via to read. “I think this letter speaks for itself,” said Goff.

“The court is willing to go forward with this case, and the Commonwealth is willing to go forward,” said Parker, speaking to Via. “But you must understand that a probation violation means jail time. Usually defendants have a lawyer to argue the evidence. You have an advantage with an attorney. You don’t have to have one. You can waive the right and defend yourself. It’s purely up to you. If you want to continue this case and talk to a lawyer, that’s fine.”

Again Via began to explain his homelessness, and again Parker interrupted. “Don’t go on unless we have decided to go forward with your case.”

“I want to go forward,” said Via. “I don’t want to waste the court’s time.”

“You’re not wasting the court’s time. This is what we do,” Parker said, gently. “It’s no problem going forward today, but I don’t want you to feel rushed.” He then gave Via a form to sign waiving his right to an attorney.

As is procedure, Parker restated Via’s past sentence and said that Via could get 90 days in jail for the probation violation.

“But you’ll hear my side?” asked Via.

“Yes,” said Parker, “but first we need to adjudicate the violation, then we’ll hear your position. Do you concede the violation?”

“Yes.”

“Then I will receive the letter into evidence.”

Via was then sworn in and asked to testify. He told the court that, at his first meeting with a probation officer in Warrenton, he was told to report thereafter to Prince William County, where Via was living at the time. “But I was homeless,” said Via, “I didn’t have a way to get there and didn’t have a way to receive mail. If I had known there was a capias on me [an order for arrest to guarantee appearance in court] I would have turned myself in. I’m not trying to run.”

Under questioning from Goff, Via told the court he had been living at a motel in Manassas and lately had been able to work a bit as a carpenter for $80 to $100 a day.

“How long have you been incarcerated?” asked Goff.

“Since last Tuesday.

“And if you are released today, where will you go?”

“Back to the motel,” said Via.

“Do you have any money?”

“[My employer] owes me for two days’ work.”

“Are you getting any kind of assistance, like food stamps?” asked Goff.

“Not since 2013. The money I make goes to pay for the motel. I’ve lost everything. The last couple of months when I’ve been able to work, I feel like a human being again.”

When asked if he would rather go to jail for 45 days or stay on probation, Via said, “To tell you the truth, probation would be worse, because I can’t get there.”

Parker then found Via guilty, but indicated he didn’t feel that Via was purposely breaking the law.

“I agree with the court,” said Goff, “It doesn’t look like Mr. Via was thumbing his nose at the court. It looks like he’s asking to go back to jail. Giving him probation would just set him up for failure.”

“I don’t think keeping you on [supervised] probation would work. It wouldn’t accomplish anything,” said Parker.

“I was homeless,” said Via, “I didn’t try to break the law.”

At that, Parker revoked Via’s previous suspended sentence, re-sentenced him to 90 days in jail and suspended 45 days of that. He also ordered Via to serve one year of unsupervised probation, which doesn’t require reporting to a probation officer, and wished Via luck.

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