School Board

I have found that my service on the South Burlington School Board has helped me understand how the legislature’s decisions related to education affect our community’s schools.  Similarly, my work in the legislature makes me a better-informed school board member.  I will be running uncontested this coming March 1st for my third term on the Board.  I look forward to another three years of working to maintain and improve upon the excellent public education we offer in South Burlington.

Last week, I appeared in a forum on Channel 17 for the two candidates running for the Board.  To understand some of my views regarding the issues we face and why I am running again for the Board, click here.

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Judiciary Committee Update

The Judiciary Committee continues to pave the way for improved highway safety. As to H.571, related to driver’s license suspensions, the committee is nearing consensus on how to address the backlog of tens of thousands of suspended licenses. We are also closing in on deciding how to avoid the future accumulation of licenses that are suspended based on failure to pay or other violations unrelated to traffic safety.

The Committee continues to work on a bill (H.560) related to driving under the influence, seeking how best to bring swift and sure consequences to those who drive impaired. Concurrently, the Committee is formulating solutions to ensure that more drivers who have been charged with DUIs use an ignition interlock device in order to reduce the number of impaired drivers on our roads. H.560 also contains a provision that increases the penalty for negligent operation of a vehicle if that operation results in a fatality or serious bodily injury. Currently, there is no additional penalty when negligent operation has such results.

When the Committee has managed to exit from our state highways, we have addressed other concerns. First, H.749, which should soon be out of committee, would allow individuals who are 16 years old or older to seek a relief from abuse order on his or her own behalf (currently one must be 18 years old or older to seek such relief).

H.818 would update Vermont’s stalking laws. In Vermont, 3 out of every 4 stalking civil protective order requests are denied, most likely due to the inflexibility of and confusion surrounding the definition of stalking. That ossified definition is from a different era. The modern stalker is usually not “lying in wait.” Rather, he (or she) is using different technologies to monitor, observe, and threaten victims. H.818 would modernize what it means to stalk.

The bill changes other elements of the crime of stalking. It relieves prosecutors of having to prove a negative, namely that there was no legitimate purpose for the alleged stalking behavior. It prohibits conduct that causes a reasonable person to fear for the safety of another such as a child, not just fear for his or her own safety. It does not require an offender to make an overt threat; he or she need only act in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened. It clarifies that the stalker need not have had the intent to cause the victim’s fear, but that a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstance would have felt that fear.

The Committee intends to work through certain concerns raised by court representatives related to this bill in order to update the State’s stalking law.

 

Reporting Out a Victims’ Rights Bill

After a bill is introduced, it is assigned to a committee of jurisdiction.  The committee considers the bill and may or may not pass the bill out of committee.  If the bill does pass, it will either proceed to another committee for consideration or will go to the House Floor for a Second Reading.  (The First Reading occurs at the time the bill is introduced.)  The bill is noticed on the House Calendar and the next day a committee member explains the bill to the House, known as reporting out the bill.  This past Thursday, I reported out H.533 related to the rights of victims of crimes.  The following is the report I provided.

Our criminal justice system provides a number of rights to victims of crimes. Victims have the right to receive certain notifications about the status of the offender, the right to participate in certain proceedings, the right to confer with a prosecutor, and the right to be heard at sentencing.

This bill addresses certain of these rights.

First, it clarifies a victim’s right to be notified. Notification of an offender’s release from custody, confinement, or supervision is essential to the security of a victim. Notifications allow victims to plan for their safety and that of their families and to mentally prepare for seeing the offender in the community. In domestic violence cases in particular, safety planning after arrest and throughout prosecution is vital because of the heightened risk of re-offense during that time.

H.533 will close gaps in the existing Crime Victim Rights statute (Title 13, Chapter 165). It clarifies the victim notification requirements at two key phases in the criminal process: 1) when corrections terminates or discharges an offender from probation and 2) when an offender is arrested, cited, and then released back into the community by law enforcement prior to arraignment.

Second, H.533 addresses a gap in the Crime Victim Rights statute related to the opportunity to be heard. Victims currently have the right to be heard at sentencing hearings. The bill would extend that right to be heard to hearings involving a change in plea that also includes a deferred sentence, which I will explain further when I discuss that portion of the bill.

Altogether, this bill ensures that victims receive statutory release notifications and opportunities to be heard in court regardless of how the case moves through the system or is disposed.

Section One

13 V.S.A. § 5305 sets out the information victims are entitled to request from agencies having the custody of a defendant.

Sec. 1 changes the title of the section from Information Concerning Release from Confinement to Information Concerning Release from Custody. This more accurately reflects when victims are entitled to information about an offender’s status.

Typically in our statutes, Confinement refers to what happens when a person has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to a term of confinement (which could include incarceration or home confinement furlough); custody is a broader term referring to the care or control of a person.

In subsection (a) the bill adds “termination or discharge from probation” to the list of events triggering the right of a victim to request notification before the defendant is released.

Section Two

13 V.S.A § 5314 sets out the information law enforcement must provide to victims of all crimes, and additional information that must be given to victims of listed crimes.

Normally, when someone is arrested, the offender is processed and the States Attorney is informed. The State’s Attorney Victims Advocate is then responsible for notifying the victim of the status of the offender.

But in some situations, this procedure cannot be followed. For instance, an arrest can occur on a Friday night and the defendant taken into custody for processing at the station. Rather than lodging the offender until an arraignment, the court may be called to set bail and conditions of release. The Victims Advocate would not know of the release and therefore could not inform the victim. New Section (b)(6) clarifies that where this situation occurs, law enforcement is responsible for notifying the victim because it is the only source of information at this early stage in the case. It is our understanding that this often already happens, but H.533 will codify the practice.

The new section provides that law enforcement shall use reasonable efforts to give the victim of a listed crime “Information concerning any bail or conditions of release imposed on the defendant by a judicial officer prior to arraignment or an initial court appearance.”

Section Three:

This section was formerly in H.675. Because that bill also involves victim’s rights, the section was incorporated into H.533.

13 V.S.A. § 5321 sets forth the rights of the victim to be notified and to appear and be heard at a sentencing proceeding involving the defendant.

But a court may make some decisions about deferred sentencing outside of sentencing hearings.

If the prosecution and defendant agree, a court may enter a deferred sentence at a change of plea hearing, instead of during a sentencing hearing. If the defendant successfully serves a period of probation, the deferred sentence is dropped. In other words, there would be no sentencing hearing so long as the defendant does not commit additional offenses or violate probation.

It is not clear under current law that a victim can be heard at such a hearing because it is not a “sentencing proceeding.” Some judges routinely allow victims to speak at change of plea hearings in deferred sentence cases. Other judges, however, have adopted a strict reading of 13 V.S.A. § 5321 and do not allow victims to offer their views at the change of plea.

This bill addresses the situation in which the prosecution and defendant have stipulated to the plea and deferred sentence. Under certain conditions, a court may order a deferred sentence where the prosecution and defendant have not agreed to the deferral. In this situation, under existing law (13 V.S.A. § 7041(b)), victims have an opportunity to express their views. This bill extends that opportunity to situations where there is a stipulation between the prosecution and the defendant.

Section 3 adds provisions that require notice and the opportunity to appear and be heard at a change of plea hearing in which the court is considering a deferred sentence. The court shall consider the victim’s views (if offered) in determining whether to defer the sentence.

Subsection (e) adds a provision requiring the prosecutor to instruct victims of listed crimes about the significance of a deferred sentence. This instruction would also include the potential consequences to the defendant of violating any conditions imposed by the court before the change of plea hearing.

Sec. 4. Effective date

Takes effect on July 1, 2016 to allow time for law enforcement to update their practices for providing notification.

We heard from representatives from:  The Center for Crime Victims Services, Office of Chief Superior Judge, Public Safety Department, Defender General’s Office, The Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence

The Judiciary Committee vote was 11-0.

 

 

 

 

 

Judiciary Committee Update

I am planning on posting an update regarding the work of the Judiciary Committee every two weeks.  The focus on traffic safety issues may seem a bit redundant with some of my other recent posts, but that is what the Committee has been focusing on.

In the past two weeks, the Judiciary Committee has continued its focus on the state’s roadways. We have taken extensive testimony on H.571 related to driver’s license suspensions and have been narrowing and focusing the questions we need to address to move a bill to the floor. The committee is dealing with three areas.

First, we are looking to clear the slate of suspended licenses that were based on traffic tickets that predate 1990. These tickets were issued in an era when traffic violations were considered misdemeanors. We have learned that most of the tickets underlying the suspensions were in a fire, doused with water, and scattered to various locations throughout the state. The bottom line is that there is no way of really knowing why individuals with these pre-1990 suspensions lost their licenses. So, we are paving the way to reinstate all licenses suspended solely due to these pre-1990 violations.

Second, we are trying to address the large number of licenses that have been suspended since 1990 due to certain non-traffic violations or failure to pay a fine. We are trying to find a balance between getting people’s licenses back to them while still finding a way to collect at least some of the outstanding fines.

Finally, we are trying to establish a path forward. The Committee generally agrees that license suspension is not an effective way to get many people to pay their fines – 28,000 are suspended for failure to pay and many continue to drive. Nor should it be a punishment for certain non-driving offenses, such as underage tobacco use. But we also want to make sure that the Judicial Bureau has sufficient means to collect fines. We want to carefully consider what combination of payment mechanisms and incentives will best allow the Judicial Bureau to collect the fines owed while getting Vermonters back driving legally. We will be spending additional time over the next couple weeks trying to strike the appropriate balances.

The Committee has also been taking testimony regarding DUI laws. Our primary focus has been to consider ways to increase the usage of ignition interlock devices to decrease impaired driving by those who have been charged with a DUI. One of the issues that we are grappling with is how to ensure that such devices are available to all who could benefit from them, not just those who can readily afford the installation and monthly fee for the device.

The Judiciary Committee has also addressed some non-driving concerns. We have considered issues related to victim notification (H.533) and a victims right to be heard at change of plea hearings (H.675). These two bills have been combined and will likely hit the floor in the coming week as H.533.

The Committee’s oversight of the state courts has also been on our agenda. We heard from the State Auditor and Court representatives regarding collections of fees related to the provision of public defenders to indigent defendants. We also reviewed proposals to streamline certain appeals and other court procedures.