Major bills combating criminal gangs are approved as legislature prepares to close 2013 legislative session

On April 13, 2013, in News 2013, News from Nashville 2013, by Mark Norris

April 13, 2013 Major bills combating criminal gangs are approved as legislature prepares to close 2013 legislative session State Senators approved several bills to make Tennessee’s streets safer as the General Assembly prepares to close the 2013 legislative session, including major legislation to combat gang crime in Tennessee. Gang related crime in Tennessee has risen […]

April 13, 2013

Major bills combating criminal gangs are approved as legislature prepares to close 2013 legislative session

State Senators approved several bills to make Tennessee’s streets safer as the General Assembly prepares to close the 2013 legislative session, including major legislation to combat gang crime in Tennessee. Gang related crime in Tennessee has risen steadily in the last four years, as incidents rose about 110 percent from 2005 through 2011 according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). The TBI also reports that cities with fewer than 50,000 residents saw gang crimes rise 232 percent as members are migrating from urban areas to recruit new members, expand their drug distribution territories, form new alliances, and collaborate with rival gangs and criminal organizations for profit and influence.

Last year, the General Assembly increased sentences for certain serious crimes committed by groups of three or more acting in concert. Lawmakers also approved tougher sentences for gun possession by criminals with prior violent or drug felony convictions. Legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, continues those efforts by rewriting and simplifying the state’s Criminal Gang Enhancement statute, which prosecutors report is too difficult to interpret and navigate.

“One complaint that is often heard about Tennessee’s current criminal gang statue is that it is difficult even for the most astute prosecutor, defense lawyer or judge to navigate,” said Leader Norris. “Simplifying this definition goes far in making the law more effective — keeping gang members off the street and out of our communities.”

The offenses proposed were developed with input from prosecutors familiar with the most common crimes committed by gangs in their communities. This change applies to offenses committed on or after the effective date of the act, while the current language would be left to allow for the use of criminal gang offenses committed prior to the effective date in prosecution and sentencing under this statute. The bill adds “facilitation of” a criminal gang offense for the purposes of determining a “pattern of criminal gang activity.”

According to 2012 data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, gang members now outnumber law enforcement officers 2 to 1 in the state.

A separate bill to combat gang violence was approved by the full Senate on Thursday tightening language in the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law to more effectively prosecute criminal gang activity in Tennessee. Similarly, this bill sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson (R-Chattanooga), also improves on legislation passed by the General Assembly last year which expanded the definition of racketeering activity under the state’s RICO statute to include criminal gang offenses. That new law made it easier to prosecute gang members and increased penalties for gang-related activities to a Class B felony punishable by a fine of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 20 years.

Senate Bill 291 merely lists those crimes of violence specifically and moves that listing directly into the RICO law. This move will prevent any subsequent changes to the state’s gang enhancer statute from affecting RICO prosecutions.

In an effort to bring Tennessee’s RICO law on par with Florida’s law, which provides the national model for prosecuting gang members under racketeering laws, the bill allows investigators to go back five years when looking for predicate offenses rather than the two years under current law. The most significant change proposed by the legislation deals with the fact that, as written, Tennessee juries can only convict defendants of either the predicate offense or the RICO violation. A predicate offense is a crime that is a component of a more serious offense. The new law will allow juries to find the defendant guilty of the robbery, rape, narcotics dealing, etc., as well as the RICO violation.

Under the state’s RICO law, law enforcement authorities must show that those arrested are gang members through previous convictions and that they have profited by their affiliation and illegal activity.

“This bill gives law enforcement another tool in their toolbox to fight the epidemic problem we are facing in this state with criminal gangs,” said Watson. “It is a continuation of legislation from the Hamilton County delegation and our Gang Task Force brought last year regarding racketeering and its application to criminal gangs. It also looks at the best practices in gang laws across the nation to help rid our streets of this scourge.”

Hall and Food Tax Relief Bills headed to Senate for final consideration after Finance Committee Approval

The state budget continues to be the main focus for lawmakers during the remaining days before adjournment. The Finance Committee approved two major tax relief bills this week, sending them to the Senate floor for final consideration. One would allow more senior citizens to qualify for Hall income tax relief, while the other would reduce the state sales tax on food from 5.25% to 5.0%. Senate Bill 198 and Senate Bill 199, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), are part of Governor Bill Haslam’s budget package to provide tax relief to Tennesseans and have been a legislative priority of many Republican lawmakers for the past decade.

The Hall tax is imposed on income derived from interest on bonds, notes and stock dividends. Since enactment of the Hall tax in 1929, the use of investment savings has grown as a primary source of retirement income. The legislation approved this week raises the Hall income tax exemption level for citizens age 65 and older from $26,200 to $33,000 for single filers and from $37,000 to $59,000 for joint filers.

This legislation builds on Hall tax relief efforts taken in 2011 that raised the exemption level for senior citizens from $16,200 to $26,200 for single filers and from $27,000 to $37,000 for joint filers. The food tax reduction legislation also builds on 2012 legislative action to reduce the state portion of the sales tax on grocery food from 5.5% to 5.25 %.

The 2013-14 state budget legislation provides a total of $23.1 million, which will go back to taxpayers through a combination of tax relief proposals. In addition to the Hall tax and food tax relief bills, the budget provides funds to raise the inheritance tax exemption level from $1.25 million to $2 million as authorized by Public Chapter 1057, passed by the General Assembly last year. Finally, the budget proposal provides tax relief for low income seniors, veterans and the disabled by fully funding the growth of the property tax freeze program enacted in 2007.

Legislation prevents the wholesale printing or Internet posting of names of those holding a Tennessee handgun permit

Legislation to prevent the publication of handgun carry permit holders in the news media or on the Internet will now go to the governor for his signature after final passage in the State Senate on Wednesday. Senate Bill 108 allows for the media to inquire and the Safety Department to confirm whether someone who had run afoul of the law was a permit holder but only upon providing a legal document or other record that “indicates the that person is not eligible to possess a handgun carry permit.” The bill also provides for exceptions in cases where law enforcement may have to visit a home or when a court order allows viewing.

“This bill protects both the handgun permit carriers and the non-handgun permit carriers,” said Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), sponsor of the bill. “It prevents criminals looking for guns to steal from having a mapped list of permit holders with names and addresses. At the same time, it prevents criminals from identifying non-permit holders and knowing that a specific home perhaps that home has no protection.”

The companion bill was approved 84-10 in the House of Representatives last month.

In Brief….

Model Character Development Program — A group of Knoxville Central High School students and teachers joined Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness and State Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) in the State Senate on Monday night in recognition of a model character program for Tennessee public schools. Senate Joint Resolution 45 urges official adoption by the State Board of Education of the Congressional Medal of Honor Character Development Program as the official curriculum to be used to meet the character education requirements currently set out in state law. The Congressional Medal of Honor Character Development Program has been endorsed by a number of school systems across the nation, but Tennessee is the first state to endorse its use statewide. The curriculum includes the six characteristics promoted by the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients: courage, commitment, sacrifice, patriotism, integrity and citizenship. The curriculum is provided online for free and is accessible by any public school. The curriculum would become effective for the 2013-14 school year.

Veterans / In-State Tuition — Legislation that would ensure all honorably discharged veterans that relocate to Tennessee receive in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities has been approved by State Senators. Senate Bill 208, sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), applies to veterans who register for college within 24 months from the time of their honorable discharge.

DUI / Interlock Devices — The Senate Finance Committee has approved key legislation to curb drunk driving, requiring the use of ignition interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers. In 2011, 257 people were killed in Tennessee in alcohol-related crashes, which is approximately 27% of all traffic fatalities in the state. Senate Bill 670, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), decreases from 0.15 percent to 0.08 percent, the breath or blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that is considered an enhanced offense for purposes of issuing a restricted driver license. The bill also requires the interlock device be capable of taking a photo, to ensure that another person does not provide the sample for a convicted offender. The average first offender has been on the road 80 times drunk before their first arrest according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Currently, 17 states require interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers.

Rape / Child Custody — Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) carried Senate Bill 923 through the full Senate this week to allow a court to terminate the parental rights of a person convicted of rape, aggravated rape or rape of a child. Moreover, the bill allows certified copy of the conviction of either three offenses as evidence enough to terminate parental rights, which is intended to protect rape victims from having to appear in court with the convicted rapist

Attorney General — The Senate heard the first of three readings of a resolution sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville), calling for the State Attorney General (AG) to be selected by the General Assembly provided voters agree. Currently, the Tennessee Attorney General is selected by the State Supreme Court and serves until he or she resigns or are replaced by the five Justices. The resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 196, would give citizens the opportunity to vote on changing that process to provide that the Attorney General be selected in a joint convention of the legislature to a four-year term beginning in January 2019. The constitutional amendment process requires approval by both the 108th General Assembly currently in session, and the 109th, which will take office in 2015. If approved, the question would then go to voters in a statewide referendum in the 2018 general election.

Governor / Duties — A joint resolution that provides for a process to hand over the office of governor during a period when he or she cannot perform their duties was approved by the State Senate this week upon its third reading. Senate Joint Resolution 103, sponsored by Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), would allow for the Speaker of the Senate to assume the duties of office if the Governor is temporarily incapacitated, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Currently, the state’s Constitution is silent on incapacitation. This bill follows Tennessee’s current constitutional provision that provides the Speaker of the Senate (followed by the Speaker of the House) to assume the duties in cases of death, removal from office or resignation. If approved by a supermajority of the General Assembly during the 109th General Assembly, the measure then goes to the voters in the 2018 general election where it must get a plurality of votes as measured by total number voting in the gubernatorial election.

Students with Disabilities / Occupational Diploma — The full Senate has approved legislation requiring the State Board of Education to adopt an occupational diploma for students with disabilities. Senate Bill 886 is sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald).