Introducing Our Local Commonwealth’s Attorneys

“Commonwealth’s Attorney” is Virginia vernacular for “prosecutor” — the D.A. who goes after the bad guys. There’s a lot more to their job.

Three examples:

• Prosecutors have wide discretion as regards whom they “throw the book at” and to whom they give second chances, as by sending them to “diversion” programs such as substance-abuse treatment versus locking them up. How they exercise that discretion is very important in determining the livability of the locality they serve, as New York City residents found when so-called “minor” crimes were ignored.
• Prosecutors can have a major impact on crime prevention, as by advising groups targeted by criminals about the scams likely to be tried on them.
• Prosecutors are among the best expert witnesses when legislators are considering changes to the criminal code or the process for considering criminal cases.

Our January program provided us an opportunity to hear from and ask questions of our relatively new Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Robert Tracci, and our brand-new City Commonwealth’s Attorney, Joseph Platania. SSV Vice President Terry Cooper moderated the discussion. Listen to the podcast below.

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Joe Platania was elected Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney this past November but he has been with that office since 2003. For much of that time he also served as a Special Assistant United States Attorney, helping to prosecute federal criminal cases. Joe is a graduate of Providence College and the Washington & Lee University School of Law. Before joining the City Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office he was an assistant public defender and an appellate attorney for the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center. Joe is the current president of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association.

Robert Tracci was elected Albemarle County’s Commonwealth’s Attorney in November 2015. Before that he had been a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney and a Deputy Assistant Attorney General dealing with violations of federal criminal law. Prior to that Robert had been a senior staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary, the House committee that deals with criminal law and criminal procedure, voting rights, intellectual property and other areas. Robert is a Phi Beta Kappa alumnus of Ohio Wesleyan University and a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law.

Program Summary

Mr. Platania said that when he considered running for office, he wanted to balance two goals: to keep the community safe and to treat people charged with crimes fairly. He described an experience where the city had been experiencing a number of shootings which were unresolved. He participated in a drug investigation which resulted in the arrest and conviction of nine persons who had sold crack and heroine and committed a number of shootings in Charlottesville. By taking these offenders off the streets, the shootings ended making the community safer for everyone.

However, he indicated that these kinds of violent criminals are not the majority he deals with as a prosecutor, but rather persons who have made poor decisions and mistakes. They are not really bad nor evil people for the most part, so how does a prosecutor in the exercise of their discretion treat someone fairly who has made a mistake? There’s a tremendous amount of power that goes with that, and he tells his third-year law students that if they want to become a prosecutor, they should wake up every day terrified with the power they have to affect someone’s life.

Mr. Tracci said that when he was running for the office, he distilled everything into two words: tough and fair. It’s important to be very proactive when holding people accountable, while maintaining the safeguards and civil liberties and the traditions that set our system of justice above all others. The role of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.

He contrasted the federal system—where the attorneys report up the chain and ultimately to the Attorney General and the President—to the constitutional system in Virginia where elected constitutional officers are accountable to the public. He has been working with Mr. Platania’s office and many community and law enforcement agencies to seek improvements in the criminal justice system. One of the issues is a multi-jurisdictional elder abuse task force, the Jefferson Area Coalition to End Elder Abuse and Exploitation. Since the creation of this task force, there are more referrals, prosecutions and sentences that reflect the severity of the underlying offense.

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