By Burl Rolett

The magistrate’s office inside the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office and Regional Jail had been quiet until the phone rang late on a recent afternoon.

Magistrate Bassel Khalaf answered the call from the Buena Vista police department, where Officer J. E. Snider had just brought in a person he had arrested.

“That was quick,” Khalaf said after hanging up the phone. Fifteen minutes earlier, the magistrate had granted Snider a warrant to arrest Jimmy Huffman, 19, of Buena Vista.

Listen to: Khalaf's Travels

Eight miles away, a Buena Vista police officer wheeled a video camera to the door of Huffman’s cell, so Khalaf could see the defendant, who was being held on charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor stemming from an alleged sexual encounter with a 15-year-old girl, whom Huffman told police he had been dating.

Less than 10 minutes later, Huffman was released from the police department after Khalaf set a $2,500 unsecured bond. From start to finish, the entire legal transaction took only half an hour.

Magistrate Bassel Khalaf (Photo by Burl Rolett)

In a typical workday, Khalaf might preside over cases that deal with everything from rape and malicious wounding to requests for restraining orders in domestic violence cases and involuntary commitments for mental health reasons.

“You learn a lot about the legal issues present, and you also learn a lot about the very real, personal, human issues that are present,” he said.

A rambling man

Khalaf, 28, first came to Rockbridge County in west-central Virginia in 2005. That fall, he traveled more than 4,000 miles from his home in Hawaii to attend the Washington and Lee University School of Law. He had earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Hawaii.

He had never been to Virginia, but he said the prospect of exploring a new area excited him.

Khalaf has been traveling all his life. He was born in Colorado and has lived in Connecticut, northern and southern California, Hawaii and Indonesia.

His father, an engineer, worked many jobs in different places across America and overseas, and the family was “never really tied down,” Khalaf said.

He says he has inherited his father’s spirit of adventure, visiting several countries in Europe, the West Bank, Turkey, Singapore and elsewhere.

“I stopped over in Japan once,” Khalaf said, as he finished ticking off a list of 15 countries he has visited.

After law school, he also took a cross-country road trip. Khalaf, who writes songs as a hobby, loaded his guitars and amplifiers in his car and drove to Seattle.

Khalaf then drove south to California for a friend’s wedding before heading back to Virginia.

Operating on a tight budget during his travels, he says he saved money by sleeping at roadside rest stops. He bathed at truck stops along the way by asking truck drivers for extra shower tokens, a tip he picked up from an online survival guide for homeless living.

It took Khalaf more than four days to drive each way. He logged only three hotel stays over the entire course of the trip.

Sleeping in a back seat full of musical equipment was almost impossible, Khalaf said, but he was broke and needed to find his way to the west coast.

Settling down—for now

After the cross-country trip, Khalaf spent about 14 months working in Richmond, taking temporary jobs at law firms.

Khalaf commuted between back and forth from Lexington for eight months before getting an apartment in Richmond, he said. Again, he saved money wherever he could.

“Whenever I was in Richmond, I’d stay at cheap hotels: Name your own price on Priceline,” Khalaf said.

He returned to Lexington last December after accepting the magistrate’s job.

Khalaf said the job interested him because it dealt with criminal and constitutional law, instead of the civil cases he had been working on in Richmond.

“Working with criminal law was a big draw,” Khalaf said, “because the work I was doing in Richmond was more large corporations, sifting through documents, and deciding which documents are relevant for their lawsuits,” he said.

Khalaf said magistrates serve as an impartial observer in the legal system. He defined impartiality by saying that the magistrate serves neither law enforcement nor the citizenry.

Police and citizens alike can bring a request for a warrant or other order to a magistrate. In each case the magistrate considers the facts of the case to decide whether there is reasonable suspicion to support legal action, such as issuing a warrant.

In Huffman’s case, Khalaf found that the legal standard, probable cause, the lowest in the law, for issuing the arrest warrant had been met after hearing only brief testimony from Snider.

Drunk defendants

A magistrate’s 7 a.m. shift usually starts with a parade of defendants who were arrested on various alcohol-related charges and spent the night at the jail, sobering up.

Some defendants are too drunk to participate in bail hearings immediately after their arrests. Their hearings must be held in the morning.

“If they’re unable to understand the questions being asked … then that might be a situation where we wouldn’t hold a bail hearing for them until they sober up,” he said. “Whoever’s working [in] the morning would handle it.”

Magistrate hearings happen at all hours of the day. Magistrates staff four offices in the 25th magisterial district in three 8-hour shifts on weekdays and two 12-hour shifts during weekends.

The district covers Rockbridge County and stretches from Botetourt and Craig counties to the south and Highland County in the north.

Only one or two magistrates are on duty in the district at any one time, and hearings are often conducted remotely using video conferencing in the magistrate’s offices and area jails, sheriff’s offices and police departments.

After 2 a.m., the office tends to quiet down until the morning shift change, Khalaf said.

In the middle of the day, residents of the area often bring requests to the magistrate on a walk-in basis, Khalaf said. On a recent afternoon two women and their daughters sought protective orders from boyfriends.

To release or not

Listen to explanation of Bail and Bond

Huffman glanced from the video camera to the floor of his cell as Khalaf moved down a checklist of state-mandated questions for a bail hearing. The defendant answered Khalaf’s questions with “Yes, sir” or “No, sir.”

State law requires Khalaf to consider defendants’ criminal histories, employment statuses and ties to the community when deciding whether to release them on bail—and under what conditions.

Near the end of the hearing, Khalaf asked Snider, the police officer, if Huffman had cooperated during the arrest—a question Khalaf says state law requires him to ask.

Khalaf said the answer helps him gauge a defendant’s level of respect for the criminal justice system.

He said defendants who cooperate with the arresting officer and conduct themselves in a respectful manner at the hearing are typically more likely to follow the rules of the criminal process and show up for subsequent court hearings.

After considering everything he learned about Huffman, Khalaf decided to let the defendant go on an unsecured bond, meaning he did not have to pay any fees upfront, under one condition: Huffman must stay away from the 15-year-old girl.

Not all defendants are as cooperative as Huffman, Khalaf said.

“I did have somebody outright tell me, ‘I’m probably not going to show up to court,’” he said.

Khalaf said that defendant wasn’t released on bail.

Another day at the office

Most magistrate hearings are unscheduled, and happen on short notice, which means Khalaf can only speculate about how busy he will be on any given shift.

On a recent Sunday, Khalaf had only one hearing over about four hours, and passed the time by watching his favorite football team, the Miami Dolphins, on the television in the office.

But a recent weekday brought nonstop hearings, Khalaf said. He was the only magistrate on duty in the district, and he described his telephone as ringing off the hook.

“I was juggling like four or five hearings at a time,” Khalaf said. “And by juggling, I mean I was putting people on hold, saying ‘Chill while I do this.’”

The next phone caller could ask for anything from a routine bail hearing to something as obscure as a request for a dangerous dog warrant. Through his rulings, Khalaf said he is constantly learning about the Virginia criminal statutes.

The job also appeals to the psychology major in Khalaf. He sees people in highly emotional situations and says he enjoys watching and learning how people behave in the high-stress atmosphere of a court proceeding.

“On a daily basis, I feel like I’m gaining some pretty significant … life experience as far as how people interact with each other.”

For now, Khalaf is content, but he maintains his adventurer’s spirit.

He said that when he is no longer learning anything new, it might be time to move on.