‘Ban the box:’ Felons arrested for not coming clean on voter registration

Gregory Briehl, 61, Stephen Hales, 60, and Margaret Witt, 71, are the only people who have been charged in Albemarle under a 2012 law that ups the penalties for felons who attempt to register to vote without restoration of rights. Submitted photo from Briehl, mugshots from Albemarle County Police Department Gregory Briehl, 61, Stephen Hales, 60, and Margaret Witt, 71, are the only people who have been charged in Albemarle under a 2012 law that ups the penalties for felons who attempt to register to vote without restoration of rights. Submitted photo from Briehl, mugshots from Albemarle County Police Department

In April, Governor Terry McAuliffe ordered state agencies to stop asking applicants seeking employment if they have been convicted of felonies. That largesse does not apply to the voting booth, and three felons who attempted to register to vote in Albemarle without checking the box on prior felony convictions have been charged with—yep, another felony.

Former Billy Graham son-in-law and pastor Gregory Briehl, 61, and retired truck driver Stephen Hales, 60, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in Albemarle General District Court August 13 and received 30-day suspended sentences and two years of good behavior.

Both governors Bob McDonnell and McAuliffe worked to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons, and media attention to that has created some “worrisome” confusion, says Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford, because some felons think the restoration is automatic, and it’s not.

“It’s not as difficult as it used to be,” she says, “but it’s not automatic.”

Meanwhile, the General Assembly tightened its watch to prevent unrestored felons from slipping into the voting booth in 2012. Where previously a felon attempting to register would be sent a letter saying he’s not eligible, now the registrar must notify the commonwealth’s attorney of such attempts and the prosecutor investigates and decides whether to press charges, says Albemarle registrar Jake Washburne.

“I haven’t voted since Jimmy Carter,” says Hales, whose felony assault convictions date to the 1970s and ’80s, according to court records. “I figured I could slip under the wire. Three months later I was sent a letter saying I couldn’t vote. Six months later police showed up at my door and arrested me.”

Hales is not particularly relieved that his charge was reduced. “I served five days in jail,” he says. “And two years probation? Give me a break.”

Briehl was the pastor at Peace Lutheran when he was charged in 2006 for surreptitiously filming female parishioners as they changed to go swimming, and he served 60 days in jail. He also was charged with 20 counts of child porn possession, and three years later, when the prosecution couldn’t prove the females depicted were minors, he pleaded guilty to one felony count.

“It’s all good,” said Briehl after the August 13 hearing.

“There’s a lot of confusion about restoration of rights,” says his attorney, Rhonda Quagliana. “Greg is eligible.”

So far, Washburne has referred five cases to the county commonwealth’s attorney this year, and three people have been charged. City registrar Rosana Bencoach says no one in her office can recall referring a false statement case to the prosecutor.

The latest in Albemarle is Scottsville resident Margaret Burnett Witt, 71, who was arrested August 3. According to court documents, she moved to this area in 2014 from Florida, and had felony convictions in 1995 and 1998. Witt did not respond to messages from C-VILLE.

Washburne says Albemarle’s elections are “pretty safe” from fraud, but “it’s
probably a good thing to let folks who
make material misrepresentations on voter registration forms know that it’s kind of serious.”

Anyone convicted of a felony must check the box when registering to vote, explains Washburne. The next question is where would-be voters can explain if their rights have been restored. “And if anyone needs help, just give me a call,” he says.

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