Norris News from Nashville – April 11, 2014

Meeting with the press after the passage of the budget

Meeting with the press after the passage of the budget

Legislature passes key bills as lawmakers look to close 2014 session next week

The Tennessee Senate passed several key bills this week, including the state budget and legislation aiding crime victims, as the 2014 session of the Tennessee General Assembly draws to a close.

The State Senate has completed the vast majority of its business with most of the remaining action pending on bills that have passed the House of Representatives in a different form. Both the House and the Senate must agree on all provisions of a bill before sending it to the governor for his signature or a conference committee is appointed to work out the differences.

The $32.4 billion budget, which is also called the appropriations bill, is the legislation that proposes state government spending for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2014 and extends to June 30, 2015. Passage of a balanced budget is the only constitutional requirement for lawmakers.

Senate Bill 2596, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), improves funding for education, including an additional $47 million to fully fund the Basic Education Program to address inflationary growth. It includes an additional $8.5 million to address salary equity adjustments for teachers which will go to 83 out of 136 school districts across the state. The budget provides additional funding for the construction of a veterans nursing home in Bradley County, as well as initial start-up money for site evaluation and acquisition of land for the next state veterans’ nursing home in West Tennessee.

The budget actuarially funds the state’s consolidated retirement system obligations. In addition, TennCare will receive $77 million in new money to handle eligible but not enrolled Tennesseans and $63 million to meet medical inflation costs and utilization increases in managed care organization expenditures.

The budget keeps funding increases proposed earlier this year intact for key areas which serve some of Tennessee’s most vulnerable citizens such as the Department of Children’s Services and the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and local property tax relief for disabled veterans and elderly disabled citizens.

The bill now goes back to the House of Representatives for approval of a Senate Amendment before going to the governor for his signature.

Senate passes legislation to protect and give more rights to victims of crime
Bill aims to uphold Tennessee’s death penalty law

The State Senate passed several bills this week to protect and give more rights to crime victims, including a bill giving victims of rape the power to keep their identity private. The action came as the nation recognized National Crime Victims’ Week, an annual observance to promote victims’ right and honor crime victims and those who advocate on their behalf. Senate Bill 2254, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), provides that identifying information regarding the victim will be treated as confidential following a guilty plea or conviction. The information would not be open for inspection by members of the public, unless the victim waives the right to confidentiality.

“This legislation is designed to be sensitive to the victims of sexual offenses and their desire to keep their identity private following the conclusion of a trial where the defendant is found guilty,” said Senator Massey. “From what I have been told about sexual crime victims, is that they feel powerless. This legislation gives helps to give the power back to them and protect them from further victimization.”

The legislation requires the district attorney general to inform the victims of their right to privacy. Nothing in the bill can be used to deny access to the public part of this file as long as the personal information is redacted.

“This does not affect the open records law until there is a sentencing,” added Massey. “The public will still be able to know about the crimes in their community and the media will be able to report, through adjudication, anything that they are reporting now.”

Massey worked in collaboration with the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, Tennessee Press Association, Tennessee Bar Association, Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Abuse, Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, District Attorney General Conference and the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference in crafting the legislation.

“We live in a new age where the use of various media outlets can re-victimize the victim, their family and friends. New technological advances like Facebook or blogs have provided a new forum for posting pictures and videos almost anywhere and instantly with little possibility of retrieving the electronic transmission. Rape victims should have the right to guard against such action and this bill will give them that ability.”

“I commend Senator Massey for her hard and innovative work on this bill,” said Majority Leader Mark Norris. “Earlier this year we all joined in passage of a new law that will repeal the statute of limitations on several classifications of rape. Part of that bill is contingent upon the victim reporting the event to law enforcement within three years. Although your bill is directed at post-conviction, this is an important part of encouraging victims to come forward timely under very difficult circumstances. This legislation lessens the fear some victims may have of exposure through media.”

Norris is the sponsor of Senate Bill 2084 which repeals the statute of limitations for rape, aggravated rape, rape of a child and aggravated rape of a child, as long as law enforcement or the district attorney general has been notified within three years of the offense. The Senate approved a minor House amendment on the bill on Wednesday and sent the proposal to the governor for his signature. The legislation pertains to acts committed on or after the bill’s July 1, 2014 effective date and offenses committed prior to that date, as long as the statute of limitations has not expired. The current statutes of limitations range from 8 years to 15 years for rape of an adult and up to 25 years after the 18th birthday of the victim when the offense involves a child.

Sex Offender Registry — In similar action, Norris also passed legislation which defines “offender against children” for purpose of the state’s Sex Offender Registry as a sexual offender, violent sexual offender, or violent juvenile sexual offender if the victim in one or more of the offender’s crimes was 12 years old or younger. Senate Bill 2083 requires a person classified as an offender against children to remain on the Sex Offender Registry for life. The Registry is open to the public. In addition, the bill adds aggravated sexual battery to the list of offenses to place a juvenile on the Juvenile Sexual Registry. The Juvenile Registry is not open to the public, but is available to law enforcement.

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 2090, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), to help ensure Tennessee is not a destination for sex offenders as a result of having weaker laws than other states regarding work and residential restrictions. Tennessee law already has such restrictions for child sex offenders. This legislation prohibits any sexual offender, whose victim was an adult, from knowingly establishing a residence or to accept employment within 1,000 feet of any public, private or parochial school, licensed day care center, other child care facility, public park, playground, recreation center or athletic field available for use by the general public.

Abuse of Elderly and Disabled — The State Senate passed legislation sponsored by Senate Health and General Welfare Committee Chairman Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) on Wednesday to protect elderly and adults with disabilities from abuse. Senate Bill 1852 increases punishment for adult abuse, exploitation or neglect from a Class E to a Class D felony. Crowe said the move will help district attorneys prosecute the crime without having to meet the higher evidentiary standard required under the state’s adult abuse laws reserved for more serious crimes.

“We are hearing from some of our district attorneys that the statute with the higher standard is proving impossible to prosecute for some of our most vulnerable persons because they suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other conditions which prevent them from testifying on their own behalf,” said Senator Crowe. “As the baby boomer generation continues to age, we are only going to see a greater need to protect vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect and exploitation.”

The legislation also requires court clerks to notify the Department of Health when someone has been convicted of adult abuse so the offender can be added to the Adult Abuse Registry. All employers of adult caretakers must check the Registry before hiring an employee. In addition, the bill creates a Task Force comprised of a variety of departments and agencies that will meet over the next several months to develop initiatives to better protect vulnerable adults.

Earlier this year, Executive Director of the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability Jim Shulman told members of the Health and General Welfare Committee that assaults on the elderly have grown over the last three years of reporting from 1,360 in 2009 to 1,492 in 2011. In addition, Shulman said underreporting of abuse may also occur due to incapacitation or abuse may be mistaken for “usual aging.”

“This bill not only helps prosecutors punish offenders, but makes sure that those who have been convicted are on the Registry to prevent them from being hired elsewhere, as well as provides a forum for comprehensive look at how we can prevent abuse of our elderly and disabled.”

Victims / Students — In addition, the Senate approved legislation which grants the court broad discretion to assign a juvenile offender, whose victim attends the same school, to another school in consultation with the local education agency. Senate Bill 583, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), grants the court discretion to determine how best to restrict future contact of the defendant with the victim while in school or other public settings, unless the victim and his or her parents, consent to the attendance.

Upholding Tennessee’s Death Penalty Statute — State Senators voted this week to close a loophole in current law that allows for the state to use execution to carry out a death sentence if a court should rule lethal injection is unconstitutional but does not address what happens if the chemicals used in the fatal dose are not available. Senate Bill 2580, sponsored by Senate State and Local Government Committee Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), allows for the death sentence to be carried out through electrocution if the Commissioner of Correction certifies that one or more of the ingredients essential to the lethal injection dose cannot be obtained through no fault of the department.

Lethal injection is the primary method of execution in the state. The legislation is designed to address delays that could occur in executions due to a shortage of lethal injection drugs. That shortage could be compounded if the state does not prevail in keeping the anonymity of the department’s lethal injection drug supplier.

“Those on death row have committed ‘the worst of the worst’ crimes committed in Tennessee,” said Senator Yager. “Return to a system that endlessly denies justice to victims of heinous crimes is ‘cruel and unusual’ to victims and their family and friends who suffer much pain and psychological trauma due to the nature of these heinous crimes.”

There are 75 males and 1 female on death row in Tennessee. Legislation was passed in 2000 specifying lethal injection for all inmates sentenced to death except for death row inmates who committed their crime prior to January 1, 1999, unless he or she requests electrocution.

The last execution in Tennessee was in December 2009, when multi-murderer Cecil Johnson was put to death by lethal injection for three counts of first degree murder. Johnson was convicted in 1981 for the triple killing at a convenience market and was given three death sentences by a jury. Seventeen death row inmates have been sentenced with multiple death sentences.

Criminal Gangs – In other action on crime, the Community Safety Act, which aims to curb gang crime, has been approved by the State Senate. Senate Bill 1634, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Hixson), would clarify that a petition for the abatement of gang-related conduct, may be filed against a criminal gang itself to which the members belong. The court would have the authority to restrict gang activity in certain geographic locations like parks and neighborhoods.

The bill would require gang-related conduct to be proven beyond clear and convincing evidence. It includes an opt-out provision that would allow a gang member to be dismissed from an injunction if he or she renounced membership. The proposal would also make it a Class C misdemeanor for a gang member to knowingly violate any temporary or permanent injunction.

Senate passes legislation to protect the privacy of Tennesseans

The Senate gave final approval to several bills aiming to protect the privacy of citizens, including legislation sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) regarding the improper use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to collect images or video. Senate Bill 1892 is a proactive measure as the Federal Aviation Administration, which currently has authority over UAVs, is in the process of lifting their regulations, creating a vacuum in Tennessee law for the private use of these vehicles.

“All Tennesseans have a fundamental right of privacy in our homes, businesses or vehicles,” said Senator Stevens. “Our current laws are deficient in addressing covert, hidden, or surreptitious video surveillance in private locations.”

The bill creates a criminal offense for using these vehicles except for certain exceptions, including the landowner’s permission, testing of aircraft authorized by the FAA, activity by the military, law enforcement for the pursuit of felony criminals, satellite mapping, and such emergency situations like an oil spill, fire suppression and to rescue a person in danger. A violation of the basic prohibition will be a Class C misdemeanor under the bill with subsequent distribution or use of unauthorized images as a Class B misdemeanor.

“There are a lot of uses of UAVs in agriculture and one of the exceptions is consent of the owner,” added Senator Stevens. “With consent, the farmer could use these vehicles for such purposes as monitoring their crops or detecting pests.”

“Just because technology makes it possible for someone to secretly surveil someone does not make it right,” Stevens said. “What was once considered military spy equipment is now widely available to everybody and our laws have not kept up in protecting our right to privacy. This bill seeks to protect individuals and business from intrusive conduct that violates our basic rights of privacy.”

Privacy Rights / Search and Seizure — The State Senate voted on Monday night to prohibit law enforcement officers from searching or seizing a person’s cellular telephone data, unless there is a search warrant, the owner gives informed consent, it is abandoned or exigent circumstances exists to suspect criminal activity at the time of the seizure. Senate Bill 1757, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), would classify cellular telephones as sealed containers and prohibit the search and seizure during a routine traffic stop.

“Searching or seizing a person’s cell phone data without any judicial oversight is a major invasion of the privacy of our citizens,” said Senator Beavers. “This legislation requires a search warrant or consent from the person in possession of the phone, unless there are exigent circumstances.”

No cellular telephone data that is obtained in violation of the proposed law would be allowable in any court of law as evidence. The bill would become effective on July 1, 2014.

Surveillance / Electronic Devices — Finally, State Senators voted to prohibit state and local police agencies from accessing or retrieving the location data of residents by surveillance of an electronic device without a court warrant. Senate Bill 2087, sponsored by Senator Beavers, would help ensure government does not take advantage of technological advances in cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices to spy without appropriate judicial oversight.

The electronic privacy bill is modeled after one passed in Montana which allows exceptions only in order to respond to a possible life-threatening situation, an emergency call by the user or when a device is reported as stolen, unless there is informed consent by the owner. The legislation prescribes a Class C misdemeanor for violation.

In Brief…

Industrial HempSenate Bill 2495 to allow farmers to be licensed to grow hemp in Tennessee was approved by the Senate this week. Although it is legal to import, purchase or export hemp, it is illegal to grow it in Tennessee. In recent years, states like neighboring Kentucky have passed measures legalizing the farming of hemp for industrial purposes. These purposes include turning the plant’s fibers into such products as oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, and fuel. There are approximately 75 manufacturers using hemp in America today, most prevalently with plastics, which can be reinforced with hemp. The bill is sponsored by Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains).

Balanced Budget Amendment / U.S. Constitution — The State Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 548, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), which calls for a convention of the states to consider a balanced budget amendment to the United States Constitution. The passage of the resolution follows several other states which have already passed or are in the process of considering the same measure. Twenty states have already passed a resolution calling for a convention to pass a federal balanced budget amendment. Once 34 states do so, Congress is required to call a convention and set the date and location. Subsequently, 38 states must then ratify any changes to the constitution in order for them to take effect.

Direct Sales / Consumers – The Senate has passed Senate Bill 2130 which more clearly defines what is considered to be a pyramid promotional scheme, a practice prohibited under state law. The bill strengthens the hand of law enforcement by clarifying and strengthening existing law, while protecting legitimate Tennessee direct sellers. The Council of State Governments (CSG) adopted this model language in 2004, which is supported by the Direct Selling Association. The bill is sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin).

Choice and Opportunity Scholarships — Among key education bills passed on final consideration by the Senate this week was the “Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act.” This legislation, proposed by Governor Bill Haslam and sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), provides opportunity scholarships for up to 5,000 students on free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent in academic achievement. Senate Bill 196 gives priority to students deemed eligible under the original bill proposed last year, with the same accountability measures in place. The schools are required to administer a nationally-normed, end-of-year test to scholarship students. If caps are not met by the priority groups, students on free and reduced lunch within districts containing a school in the bottom five percent would be eligible for a scholarship to fill the remaining slots. The number of slots would be expanded to 7,500 in the second year and 10,000 in the third, until it reaches a maximum of 20,000 in year four and thereafter.

911 Funding Reform – Legislation was approved this week updating the existing statutory model for funding Tennessee’s 911 emergency communications network to account for changes in telecommunications technology and consumer choices. Senate Bill 2407 is the product of yearlong discussions and collaboration among state legislative leaders, local emergency communications districts, the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board, public safety officials and telecommunications carriers. The compromise bill establishes a stable, reliable future-proof funding source for maintaining and improving the state’s emergency communications network services. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville).

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