Turning up the heat: Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci faces a progressive challenger with deep pockets

Robert Tracci hopes to fend off challenger Jim Hingeley to retain his seat as the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney in a race that’s already had an “unprecedented” twist. Photo by Jen Fariello Robert Tracci hopes to fend off challenger Jim Hingeley to retain his seat as the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney in a race that’s already had an “unprecedented” twist. Photo by Jen Fariello

Political races in Albemarle County are usually pretty staid compared to Charlottesville’s—except for the commonwealth’s attorney race.

Prosecutors Jim Camblos (in 2007) and Denise Lunsford (in 2015) were both ousted after controversial, high-profile cases. And 2019 has promised to be another closely watched contest—even before incumbent Robert Tracci’s opponent received an unheard-of $50,000 donation.

Republican Tracci, 47, is a former federal prosecutor and U.S. House Judiciary Committee counsel. Jim Hingeley, 71, founded the Charlottesville Albemarle Public Defender’s Office in 1998. Both men tout their experience—and their opponent’s lack of it.

Democrat Jim Hingeley, founder of the Charlottesville Albemarle Public Defender’s Office, faces Republican Robert Tracci in the commonwealths’s attorney race.

“He doesn’t have any prosecution experience at all,” says Tracci.

“I’m proficient as a criminal trial lawyer,” says Hingeley, noting his more than 40 years as an attorney. A factor in his decision to run, he says, “was [Tracci’s] inexperience and the mistakes he made…When he was elected, he’d never tried a case on his own in state court.”

Hingeley calls Tracci’s failure to secure a perjury conviction against Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler “a rookie mistake. He failed to prove the perjury occurred in Albemarle County.”

“The court made a finding with which I disagree,” says Tracci.

The two men differ on their interpretations of prosecutorial discretion and on the role of money in the campaign, notably activist Sonjia Smith’s $50,000 donation to Hingeley.

Hingeley says he also decided to run because he disagrees with Tracci’s approach. “Mr. Tracci has, for the most part, the view that prosecuting people, convicting them, and removing them from the community is the way to address criminal behavior and solve crime in the community,” says Hingeley, who describes himself as a progressive.

For his part, Tracci says Hingeley is part of a “political prosecution movement in which the commonwealth’s attorney is a political activist rather than a legal advocate.” He is “already expressing a reluctance to bringing felony offenses and that has consequences that are not good for public safety,” says Tracci.

“We don’t have authority to summarily disregard the law,” says Tracci, who suggests Hingeley is running for the wrong job and should be seeking a seat in the General Assembly to change the laws with which he disagrees.

“I have a different approach,” says Hingeley. “I know a lot about what is driving criminal behavior.”

Mass incarceration is the “result of the kinds of policies Mr. Tracci has in his office,” says Hingeley. “I think we need to look at ways to keep people in the community.”

Both Hingeley and Tracci cite support for treating substance abuse and mental illness outside of incarceration. “Jails and prisons are not equipped” to treat those issues as well as the services that are already available in the community, says Hingeley.

Tracci says, “I’ve sought alternatives to prosecution, including the therapeutic mental health and drug dockets.” He says his is the first commonwealth’s attorney office in the state to have overall responsibility for sexual assault at UVA, rather than have cases handled as Title IX. “We were ahead of the curve,” he says.

And while he’s committed to enforcing laws as written, Tracci says some reforms are in order. “I’ve written the attorney general that it’s time to look at cannabis laws.” And he wants to see a uniform standard to determine cannabis impairment.

That was an issue Hingeley cites as an example of Tracci’s inexperience. When a train collided with a garbage truck on the tracks in Crozet in early 2018, Tracci tried driver Dana Naylor on involuntary manslaughter and maiming from driving while impaired because he had THC in his bloodstream.

The problem, says Hingeley, is that the science on THC, including results from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is that “THC in the blood does not appear to be an indication of impairment.“ And when Tracci attempted to prove Naylor was impaired, “his own toxicologist said that’s not correct,” recounts Hingeley.

Hingeley has raised more than $150,000, the largest amount for any commonwealth’s attorney race in memory. That includes $50,000 from Smith, who also gave $10,000 to Andrew Sneathern, who, when he decided not to seek the prosecutor’s job, contributed those funds to Hingeley.

“I think it reflects the support I have gotten for change and for criminal justice reform,” says Hingeley.

Tracci thinks it reflects an “unprecedented” amount of campaign money in this district, if not the commonwealth, and that Smith’s $50K was almost equal to what he spent on the last election.

“The community should have the right to know what conversations were made before that contribution,” he says.

Tracci says he met with Smith, who disagreed with his support of the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail’s notification of ICE when undocumented immigrants are released from the jail. “After that, I learned she wrote the $50,000 check,” he says.

Smith says she’d contributed to Hingeley more than two months before she met with Tracci at his request on April 1, and that her record as an active Democratic donor shows “that I do not support Republicans.”

Tracci says he didn’t do any fundraising his first three years in office, and as the county’s current prosecutor he doesn’t accept contributions from any defense attorney with cases that will appear in Albemarle courts. “I’m going to be outspent and I know I’m going to be outspent.”

Hingeley says he wants to find solutions that will break the cycle of racial injustice and the disproportionate number of minorities in prison. “I’m seeing a lot of interest in this community in doing things differently.”

“We don’t have the authority not to prosecute violent crimes,” says Tracci. That disrespects the victims, he says, “and there’s nothing compassionate about that.”

Tracci and Hingeley will face off at The Center on Hillsdale Drive on October 9 at 1:30pm.

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Dee WhiteedwardKenneth A Martinedwardjethrotullson Recent comment authors
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els
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els

This is fairly good journalism, for a change, from Cville Weekly. Usually its ‘Cville WEAKly … with a big spoonful of BIAS, or OVERT PREJUDICE’. But this is better work. Thank you. We wonder why you left out some important inquires: 1. Has Attorney Hingeley moved to ACTUALLY LIVE in the County – whose voters he claims to respect – or is Mr/Ms/Them Hingeley (no gender pronouns were provided in the story) – still living daily in the City, grandiosely thumbing her/his/their nose at County voters? 2. Attorney Hingeley claims to want to provide better ways than incarceration to handle… Read more »

jethrotullson
Member
jethrotullson

The rest aside, Mr. Hingeley’s pronouns are in fact used in the article.

jethrotullson
Member
jethrotullson

Anyone else think Tracci threw the Kessler case? At absolute best he’s proven he’s too incompetent to be a lawyer and at worst he’s actively collaborating with the folks who killed one of our fellow Cvillians.

edward
Guest
edward

This sound just like a Trump-tweet.

You said ‘Tracci proved that he is incompetent’. NO. YOU SAID THAT, without ANY PROOF.

A very common rhetorical strategy of Trump. Learned from you Master?

jethrotullson
Member
jethrotullson

Is failing to establish that a court of law were perjury allegedly happened is within the legal jurisdiction of that very same courtroom not evidence of incompetence?

edward
Guest
edward

Does NOT residing and voting in the jurisdiction you claim to represent – as has been the case of Mr Hingeley who has not be living in and voting in the County ( ask the person if the person will be VOTING in Albemarle County on election day! go ahead ask!) amount to ‘proof’ of vanity, arrogance, dishonesty?

jethrotullson
Member
jethrotullson

Not in the way that bungling the Kessler case demonstrates Tracci is bad at his job, no

Kenneth A Martin
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Kenneth A Martin

Hingeley has spent the last 40 years trying to find ways of keeping his clients from being convicted. If he was any good at that, then I believe that is enough reason not to elect him to prosecute his former clients. I doesn’t seem to understand what his new role will be in the courtroom ***Hingeley says he also decided to run because he disagrees with Tracci’s approach. “Mr. Tracci has, for the most part, the view that prosecuting people, convicting them, and removing them from the community is the way to address criminal behavior and solve crime in the… Read more »

Kenneth A Martin
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Kenneth A Martin

As an addendum to my comment, HIngeley repeats what I have said ***“I have a different approach,” says Hingeley. “I know a lot about what is driving criminal behavior.”***

Kenneth A Martin
Guest
Kenneth A Martin

As a lawyer and not a trained psychiatrist, is he saying he knows the reasons behind criminal behavior better than a judge or jury? Perhaps he believes neither has a function in our judicial system

jethrotullson
Member
jethrotullson

Wow, he does sound like a bad candidate when you pretend he has completely antijudicial politics

Kenneth A Martin
Guest
Kenneth A Martin

Hingeley is a bad candidate if he has spent the last 40 years defending some of the same people he will be asked to prosecute if he is elected and if and when they get rearrested as many do.

Dee White
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Dee White

There’s some legit question whether Tracci was ever a federal prosecutor, as he’s represented — or did he just work for a federal prosecutor?

Kenneth A Martin
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Kenneth A Martin

His record here is what is important. This witch hunt mentality with innuendo is getting out of hand. Next people will be asking what is his real gender.

jethrotullson
Member
jethrotullson

When you say “his record here” you mean that time he fumbled that extremely easy Kessler case?

Kenneth A Martin
Guest
Kenneth A Martin

There was no fumble on the Kessler case. I believe the Judge said he could not bring charges because he could not establish jurisdiction to her satisfaction. Happens all the time with Charlottesville zip codes crossing legal boundaries.

Kenneth A Martin
Guest
Kenneth A Martin

When was the last time someone was convicted on a perjury charge in Central VA? Has the City Attorney been able to convict Kessler of is he free living with his mother?

Dee White
Guest
Dee White

Not so, Kenneth. Been around many decades and never heard of another case where the CA lost from not establishing venue. I’m sure there must have been some case somewhere, but if so, very, very rare. This is a fact you nail down at the beginning of your case, and is not even CA 101 but a kindergarten lesson before 101.

Kenneth A Martin
Guest
Kenneth A Martin

Those cases are usually classified as ” charges dismissed.” I’ve seen oodles of them in my 7 decades here. Did What did the City’s Commonwealth Attorney convict Kessler of? Did he try?

Dee White
Guest
Dee White

Well, one who misrepresents 4 years ago . . . . and that’s not his only misrepresentation.

Kenneth A Martin
Guest
Kenneth A Martin

Hingleley has finally admitted he is not a resident of Albemarle. I assume he plans to be by Nov. election. I wonder why he didn’t run for the City’s position instead. That’s where he lives.