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Virginia Court Improperly Denied Transgender Prisoner’s Name Change

by Matt Clarke 

On December 13, 2018, the Supreme Court of Virginia held that a state circuit court improperly denied a transgender prisoner’s application for a name change. 

Federal prisoner Brian Allen Leonard filed an application in Virginia state court for a name change to Bree Anna Leonard. Leonard attached medical records from the federal Bureau of Prisons showing a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and indicating her ongoing transition from male to female. She also attached a letter to the application attesting to treatment with “gender conformation hormones” for the preceding two years and an intent to receive gender reassignment surgery, noting that a requirement for such surgery is that the person live 12 months in a role congruent with their gender identity. 

Leonard asserted that the legal name change was the next step in her transition and “will have tremendous psychological benefits” because being called by her birth name “is harmful and distressing.” Leonard claimed the name change would not interfere with any condition of her incarceration or sentencing.

At the time of the filing, Leonard was two years away from completing a 17½-year federal prison sentence for possession of child pornography. Thereafter, she would be transferred to Missouri to finish serving three sentences for state sodomy convictions. 

After receiving the application, the Virginia circuit court delivered a copy to the Prince George County Commonwealth Attorney’s office. The Commonwealth filed a response alleging Missouri had a greater interest in considering the name change and that granting it would complicate identification during Leonard’s transfer to Missouri and subsequent sex offender registration. The court denied the application without a hearing four days after receiving the Commonwealth’s reply, finding good cause did not exist for considering the application.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia held the circuit court had committed multiple errors. First, the determination of whether good cause exists is a preliminary evaluation that should take place before the Commonwealth is served and take into account only “the reasons alleged in the application.” If good cause exists, the court must accept the application and serve a copy on the Commonwealth, which has 30 days to file a response. The next mandatory step is that a hearing be held on whether the name change would frustrate a legitimate law enforcement purpose, be used for fraud or infringe upon others’ rights. Va. Code § 8.01-217, as amended in 2014, includes a presumption against granting name changes for probationers, prisoners and registered sex offenders. However, a name change is permissible if the applicant proves no harm to a legitimate law enforcement purpose, no fraudulent intent and no infringement upon the rights of others.

In this case, the circuit court abused its discretion by failing to follow the statute’s mandatory procedures for name change applications. Therefore, the lower court’s ruling was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Leonard v. Commonwealth, 821 S.E.2d 551 (Va. 2018). 

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Related legal case

Leonard v. Commonwealth