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In re Dennis

Supreme Court of Virginia

August 17, 2017

IN RE: JAMES GARDNER DENNIS

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF GREENSVILLE COUNTY Judge W. Allan Sharrett

          Lemons, C.J., Goodwyn, McClanahan, Powell, Kelsey, and McCullough, JJ., and Millette, S.J.

          OPINION

          S. BERNARD GOODWYN, JUSTICE

         In this appeal, we consider what constitutes good cause for a court to consider a petitioner's change of name application under Code § 8.01-217(D).

         Background

         On January 7, 2016, James Gardner Dennis (Dennis), an inmate in the Greensville Correctional Center, petitioned the Circuit Court of Greensville County to change his name to James Gardner Wright pursuant to Code § 8.01-217 (the Application).[1] The Application complied with the notice and disclosure requirements of Code § 8.01-217(B), and stated that Dennis was incarcerated in the Greensville Correctional Center, has felony convictions for embezzlement, sexual abuse, carnal knowledge, computer solicitation, and 20 counts of possession of child pornography, and is required to register with the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry.

         The Application asserted that Dennis sought the change of name for a religious purpose. Dennis alleged that he had converted to the "Native American Faith, " and a "tenet" of this faith required the "consolidation of his name with" that faith, so he chose the last name "Wright" "in obedience to the Great Spirit, " as it was "the last name of his last full-blood Native American Ancestor."

         The circuit court denied the Application, stating that

The application of the petitioner revealing that he has been convicted of twenty (20) counts of possession of child pornography, one count of soliciting a minor over the internet, one count of sexual abuse, and one count of carnal knowledge, the Court does not find good cause for consideration of the petition, and declines to accept the same. The petition is DISMISSED.

         This Court granted Dennis's appeal of the circuit court's judgment.

         Analysis

         Dennis argues that the circuit court erred in dismissing his Application for lack of "good cause, " because he asserted a religious purpose as the reason for his change of name. He notes that this Court ruled in Stephens v. Commonwealth, 274 Va. 157, 162, 645 S.E.2d 276, 278 (2007), that an application for a change of name asserting a religious reason as the basis therefor is good cause for a circuit court to, at least, consider the application.

         Code § 8.01-217(D) governs change of name petitions by probationers, a "person for whom registration with the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry is required pursuant to Chapter 9 (§ 9.1-900 et seq.) of Title 9.1, or [an] incarcerated person." It provides that "[n]o application shall be accepted by a court for a name change of [such person] unless the court finds that good cause exists for consideration of such application under the reasons alleged in the application." Code § 8.01-217(D) (emphases added).

         If the court accepts such application for consideration, it must then mail a copy of the application to the Commonwealth's Attorney for the jurisdiction in which the conviction ...


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