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Criminals targeting agents in homes will face stiffer penalties in this state

By March 4, 2015 One Comment

Virginia lawmakers have passed a Realtor-backed bill that can add up to five years to the prison sentences of people who commit crimes including murder, robbery and rape after luring their victims into vacant homes.

The legislation represents one of the most muscular responses from the industry to heightened concerns over the safety of real estate agents.

The Virginia Association of Realtors, which represents about 30,000 Realtors, proposed the bill in early January to help protect licensed real estate agents, citing “several high-profile cases” where Realtors “have been lured into vacant houses and assaulted, abducted … or worse.”

“This legislation ensures authorities have additional tools in place to prosecute individuals who knowingly lure or trap Realtors into these circumstances with intent to do harm,” VAR said in summarizing the legislation.

In its original form, the bill would have made enticing a real estate licensee into a home with the intent to commit certain crimes — including murder, malicious wounding, robbery and rape — a distinct and separate felony that would carry a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 20 years for a first conviction and a mandatory sentence of 40 years for a second conviction.

The bill ultimately passed by lawmakers was amended to broaden the range of crimes covered, and to protect all individuals, not just real estate agents. The penalty for violating the law was also reduced, making an offense a separate and distinct Class 6 felony.

Class 6 felonies in Virginia carry a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison and a maximum sentence of five years, “or in the discretion of the jury or the court trying the case without a jury, confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both.”

The bill — which passed the House and Senate unanimously, and is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe — represents one of the strongest reactions to date to the dangers that real state agents face on the job.

The issue of agent safety has remained a hot topic since the death of Arkansas Realtor Beverly Carter, who prosecutors say was kidnapped and murdered in September after showing a home to a stranger.

Reports of other incidents where real estate agents were threatened by strangers while showing homes, or received unnerving phone calls (including a number made to VAR members), have fueled the debate over how to reduce the risks agents face on the job.

Some industry leaders have called for real estate associations, multiple listing services or real estate brokerages to adopt uniform, mandatory safety procedures. Requiring real estate agents to vet potential clients before meeting them for the first time, for example, could reduce incidents where agents are set up by criminals. If safety procedures are voluntary, proponents say, some agents will ignore them or take risks to gain a competitive advantage.

Less than half of agents say that their brokerage has safety procedures in place, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors. NAR is developing a written policy for agent safety that will not be mandatory.

Renewed focus on agent safety has also inspired a number of mobile apps. One of the latest converts a smartphone into a security camera.

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