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Suicide is a Crime in Virginia… Since When?

Written by Bruce Cruser

Bruce Cruser has been Executive Director of Mental Health Virginia since 2016, bringing a background in social work and community corrections, and many years of leadership experience in local and state government.

February 12, 2024

By Kylie Hobson

Suicide has been a common law crime in Virginia since it was a British colony; HB 81 is trying to finally change that.

Even though the term “suicide” is nowhere in the Virginia criminal code, voluntarily taking one’s own life is still a crime in Virginia. Introduced by Fairfax Delegate Marcus B. Simon and co-patroned by Virginia Beach Delegate Michael Feggans, HB 81 “abolishes the common-law crime of suicide. Suicide is currently a common-law crime in Viriginia, although there is no statutorily prescribed punishment.”

What’s common law? Common law is law based on previous court decisions instead of on statutes or codes made by a legislature. Virginia’s common law is based on English common law, a legal system derived from court decisions in England since the Middle Ages.

So suicide is a crime in England? Historically, suicide was considered a crime against God and the king—it was the self-murder of one of the king’s subjects. As punishment, the crown took the deceased’s personal property and subjected them to an improper burial including mutilation of the body, burial of the body within a crossroads, or driving a stake into the heart of the body. The Suicide Act 1961 decriminalized the act of suicide in England and Wales.

But it is still a crime in Virginia? Common law remains in effect in Virginia unless the legislature passes a bill repealing the common law. This is what makes HB 81 so important. The General Assembly must pass a bill explicitly saying suicide is not a crime—if not, the common law provision remains, and suicide stays a crime. The General Assembly has already repealed the punishment for suicide, “forfeiture of estate,” in Virginia Code § 55.1-103.

Bills similar to HB 81 have been introduced in the past:

  • 2014: HB 79 was left in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
  • 2015: HB 1869 was left in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
  • 2018: HB 42 was left in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
  • 2020: HB 1063 was continued to 2021 by the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
  • 2021: HB 1951 was continued to the 2021 Special Session I and defeated in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

These iterations of the bill show progress, but we are still waiting to see what the General Assembly will do this session. HB 81 has passed the House and on February 2, it was referred to the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.

Decriminalizing suicide is crucial to protecting the dignity of those who die by suicide and their families. Those who lose a loved one to suicide often report feeling isolated and judged. Virginia labelling their loved one a common-law criminal only adds to the stigma often associated with suicide. Erasing this stigma is an essential element of suicide prevention.

What can I do? You can ask your state senator and members of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee to support HB 81. Committee for Courts of Justice.

The public is also allowed to speak to the committee when the bill comes up for consideration, which will be posted on their meeting docket.

How can I help someone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide?

If you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis, c the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 any time. If there is not a crisis but just a need to talk, anyone can call or text Mental Health America of Virginia’s peer run Warm Line at 866.400.6428 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. M-F and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. weekends.

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