Melvin Hill on gang violence, drugs, and why he's running for Commonwealth's Attorney

Melvin Hill, the Democratic nominee for Commonwealth's Attorney, did not respond to numerous requests by The Rambler for an interview.

In advance of the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with local candidates, including for uncontested races, to give voters insights into who their elected officials will be. These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement to the widest possible audience.

Melvin Hill, the Democratic nominee for Commonwealth's Attorney, and his campaign did not respond to numerous requests over multiple weeks by The Rambler for an interview. On Monday, Hill spoke to The Roanoke Times about his medical issues and financial struggles — which include a 2020 bankruptcy declaration after Hill faced hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal tax debt.

Today, we're publishing an excerpt from Hill's announcement speech about why he's running for Commonwealth's Attorney — a position he sought in 2017 — against incumbent independent Donald Caldwell. The kick-off in August, which occurred before revelations of his more recent financial troubles, ended with questions from the media, which came from The Roanoke Times and WFIR radio.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

I’ve been asked during this campaign. Why should I vote for you? Why are you running? And the thing I tell people is, if you could compartmentalize it or reduce it down to a phrase, it is experience and new ideas. First of all the experience, that's life experience, and that's experience as a lawyer. First and foremost, I was born in 1956 in Lynchburg, Virginia. My mother and father were divorced, so I was raised by my mother, as a single parent in the first housing project in Lynchburg, Virginia. There were three of us. I have an older brother and a younger sister. I was the well adjusted middle child. There was a lot of discipline, a lot of love in that household. For example, I still remember that my mom would make my sister sit at the breakfast table, even though she did not eat breakfast, because she had that order. Got up, got ready to go to school, got packed, when you got back from school, you did your homework. So that's kind of the background that I grew up in. And then, in that background I learned accountability. And that's at bottom what the criminal justice system is about. It is not so much about putting people in jail. That's what people normally think. It is really about holding people accountable.

Now, I graduated from E. C. Glass High School in 1974, Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia in 1978  and W&L [Washington and Lee] law school in 1983. I've been a lawyer since 1984. As a lawyer, I've done virtually almost everything a lawyer can do. I've been involved in at least 200 jury trials as a prosecutor and a defender. I've represented clients who have appealed to the Supreme Court, and to the Court of Appeals of Virginia, I’ve represented clients in civil cases, represented clients in divorce, custody cases, all kinds of family law cases. I served on the [city] planning commission for two terms, a total of eight years, and I've also served as a substitute judge. The only reason I resigned from that position as a substitute judge was to run for the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney. As most of you may know, you cannot be involved in politics and be a full-time judge.

I bring that experience to bear on the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney. And because of that experience and life experience and that experience as a lawyer, the platform that I am running on is several things, but primarily, it’s community-based prosecution. Now, there's been almost an epidemic of gun violence across the nation and specifically in the City of Roanoke. So the question then becomes what do you do about it? There are two avenues you have to go down in my opinion. You have to be involved in what’s called intervention. You have to be involved in incarcerating those dangerous individuals participating in gun violence, shooting people, shooting cars, shooting houses and so forth. There is no excuse for that kind of behavior, and it will not be tolerated when I'm Commonwealth’s Attorney of the City of Roanoke.

But the other part of that — what is missing now — is, specifically, prevention. You got to be involved in the community as the Commonwealth’s Attorney. You have to go to the churches, you got to go where the young people are, you have to go to the schools. You have to go to nonprofit organizations.

Another aspect of my tenure as Commonwealth’s Attorney is specific to gangs. In the last few years, a lot of gun violence has been perpetrated by gangs. So what do you do? Gangs recruit people from the elementary, middle school and high schools, people without a criminal record. So with the new sheriff, Antonio Hash, hopefully I will be able to partner with their program and prosecutors will be involved in talking to young people, and those levels — elementary, middle school, high school level — to prevent people from getting involved in gang activity in the first place. I will dedicate two assistant Commonwealth’s Attorneys to a gang intervention unit.

What I hope to be is not the kind of prosecutor that comes to a woman and says, 'Ma'am, we were able to successfully prosecute your son's killer and he’s got 30-40 years in the penitentiary.' I want to be the prosecutor who comes to the citizens of Roanoke at the end of four years and says, 'I have been able to reduce gun violence by 10, 20, 30 percent.' If I am successful in that, I have saved lives. The other aspect of my tenure as Commonwealth’s Attorney will be drug treatment, as opposed to incarceration. There are studies that indicate that if just 10 percent of drug users were given drug treatment, as opposed to incarceration, we'd literally save $4.5 billion. So my focus will be on drug treatment, rather than incarceration. Specifically, I will ask for an expansion of the drug court program. The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office gets a veto over who gets into the drug court program. We will expand that and make sure that everybody who has a serious drug addiction can get into that program. There’s the Alpha in-jail drug treatment program [at the Roanoke City Jail]. We’ll be liberal in allowing people to get into that program. All of those things we’ll be doing to get more drug treatment to these people who seriously need it.

Also, I'll be partnering with the legislators, Sen. [John] Edwards and Del. [Sam] Rasoul, to expand the funding for drug treatment.

If there's a drug treatment center on every corner — I’m just exaggerating, obviously — but if there's a drug treatment center and everybody who wants to avail themselves of drug treatment actually takes part in that, that will save lives, save money as well. The cost of incarceration is greater than the cost of drug treatment. Those are simply two of the things I'll be doing: the community based prosecution, and the drug treatment program are two new ideas to be implemented by me, as Commonwealth's attorney. I am convinced, and I have no doubt about it, that at the end of the day, Roanoke will be a safer city after I become Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Why do you feel like you need to run?

One, it's my opinion from being involved in criminal law for years, we do a pretty good job of incarcerating. Police are very good, they're professionals, if a crime has been committed, they can prosecute. My point is, why can’t we get involved in more than just prosecution. What's stopping us from being involved in all kinds of intervention programs that the city has to offer, whether it's nonprofit organizations, city-run programs, churches and schools, wherever it is, and the objective would be to prevent people from being involved in crime. Specifically, I see Commonwealth's Attorneys, people going to young people to explain to them the legal consequences. Everybody thinks, Well, you know what's right and wrong, you know if you’re wrong, you get in trouble. But I've talked to young people. They don't have any idea what they're facing. And, just for example, there’s a minimum mandatory of five years for a felony with a gun, two years if it’s a non-violent felony, five years if you’re selling drugs and you have a gun, if you have multiple prior convictions you’re looking at five years or 10 years for a certain amount of meth. Trust me, the average person doesn’t understand. Trust me, the average criminal sitting at home does not say, You know, I’m not going to rob this liquor store because I may serve life in the penitentiary for robbery with a handgun. So these kinds of things I think we as prosecutors need to get out into the community and explain to people the seriousness of the consequences, and that there’s a better way of living. Hopefully, and it is a hope, granted, that people will stop and think before they get involved in stuff like that.

Did you learn anything from your previous run in 2017 that you’re going to apply to this one?

One, it looked like everybody didn't know I was a Democrat, even to this day. I went back and looked at the precincts and I lost by [1,779] votes. So the first objective of this run is to make sure everybody knows I’m a Democrat. The second objective is to make sure I target those precincts that I lost, because I don’t necessarily have to win every precinct, but I have to increase my vote total in those that I lost and I will be targeting those.

The big point that Don Caldwell pulled out of his back pocket during the race last time was your business issues. Is he going to be able to play that card again?

I don't think so. I have contacted Optima Tax and they’re resolving those issues as we speak.

Did you say resolving or?

Yes, resolving. And the other thing, one has nothing to do with the other. I mean, I'm a businessman. I go out and I earn money, and running the Commonwealth's Attorney’s office is completely different than running your own business. Number one, I have to go out and earn the money, whereas if you're a Commonwealth’s Attorney, the money is sort of given to you by the state, either by state or federal government in the form of grants or whatever.

Specifically, how do you plan to push drug treatment over incarceration? How would that work?

To give you a real concrete example — this happened in another jurisdiction, not in Roanoke City — I had a client who was actually in drug treatment. And an informant comes to him and says, Can you get me anything? And the guy says sure. And this is all on video tape, so there’s no dispute about the facts. He goes to a house, buys the drugs, keeps some of the drugs for himself and gives it to the informant. And the informant then gives it to the police. Technically, that’s a distribution. It was prosecuted as a distribution. But even the pre-sentencing report said this was a drug user, but he was sentenced to, like, three-and-a-half, four years in the penitentiary. And he was sentenced as a drug seller or dealer. And he wasn’t. Specifically, that’s the first thing I’ll do. Everyone will be identified as, Are they really a drug dealer and he’s making a ton of money? Or is he just a drug user trying to satisfy his own habit? If he’s a drug user, I don’t think he actually sold drugs, though it’s technically a distribution, he’ll be reduced to a possession and he will be given the opportunity, depending on the circumstances, whether it’s in-patient drug treatment or the Alpha program, or out-patient through Blue Ridge Behavioral Health.

What's your position on the recent legalization of marijuana, from a prosecutor's point of view?

People have got to understand, while it's legal to possess small amounts, it's still illegal, for example, to drive under the influence. I would like to see years of, you know, how is this working in actual practice. But ultimately it’s up to the legislature and whatever they decide to do is fine with me.

Caldwell's issue is it takes away a probable cause element that prevents police from making searches. His argument was, when you find marijuana, you find guns and harder drugs. Do you give any credence to that?

I disagree as a defense attorney. I think the problem with the way the law was, it means that if an officer came up to your vehicle, he stopped you for speeding, and he said he smelled the odor of marijuana, that gave him authority to search. For the probable cause to believe that an illegal drug is in the car. I would like to see some figures on that, because I don't think that's necessarily true. A lot of young people smoke marijuana, and they are not drug dealers, they may not have guns. They don't have harder drugs, and so forth. So again, unless there's some figures out there that I have not seen, I don't think that's necessarily accurate to say, because of the smell of marijuana, you’ll find other illegal activity. I think police use that to search, and I have had a number of cases, more from the defense attorney’s point of view, that nothing else is found, maybe some marijuana. And that will be the end of it. No guns, no other hard drugs or anything like that.