Lawmakers focus on legislation to aid crime victims and curb drug abuse

On March 8, 2012, in News from Nashville 2012, by Mark Norris

March 8, 2012 Lawmakers focus on legislation to aid crime victims and curb drug abuse Victims of crime were at the heart of several key bills that moved through the State Senate this week, as the General Assembly makes steady progress towards adjournment next month. Legislation to curb crime and drug abuse in Tennessee remains […]

March 8, 2012

Lawmakers focus on legislation to aid crime victims and curb drug abuse

Victims of crime were at the heart of several key bills that moved through the State Senate this week, as the General Assembly makes steady progress towards adjournment next month. Legislation to curb crime and drug abuse in Tennessee remains high on the list of priorities as lawmakers are working diligently to complete the 2012 session.

Kelsey Smith Act would help locate crime victims through cell phone technology

Among bills to aid crime victims was legislation approved by the Senate Commerce Committee that would help law enforcement in locating a missing person believed to be the victim of a crime. Senate Bill 2413, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), requires wireless providers to “ping” the victim’s cell phone at the request of law enforcement authorities to help locate the missing person when there is sufficient information to believe there is a risk or threat of death or serious physical harm.

The “Kelsey Smith Act” is named after an 18-year old Kansas woman who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered in 2007. The tragedy resulted in a nationwide movement by her parents, Greg and Missey Smith, and other advocates to ensure that law enforcement authorities can receive assistance from a cell phone provider to help find the missing person.

Current law only allows emergency 911 personnel or law enforcement authorities to obtain a ping location on a cell phone if the call was made to 911 initially. Any other request requires a warrant, which may take days to obtain. In Kelsey Smith’s case, nearby surveillance video showed there was reason to believe she been abducted, but since she did not dial 911, her location was not released by her cell phone provider despite pleas from her family and law enforcement officials. After four days, the technology was used that pinpointed the location of her cell phone and her body was found within 45 minutes.”

Currently five states, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and New Hampshire, have passed the Kelsey Smith Act. Tennessee, Hawaii, Missouri and Washington, D.C. also have the legislation under consideration this year.

Legislature continues war against synthetic drug abuse in Tennessee

Legislation dealing with the growing epidemic of synthetic drugs in Tennessee passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Senate Bill 2280, sponsored by Senator Mike Faulk (R-Church Hill), makes it a Class E felony to possess, use or sell synthetic substances intended to imitate controlled substances. The bill is modeled after laws currently in place in Florida and Virginia.

“We can’t wait any longer on this legislation,” said Senator Faulk, who added that since his bill was drafted deaths due to synthetic drugs have occurred in the state. “Tennessee must address this problem now,” he said.

Synthetic drug products, which have become increasingly popular among teens and young adults, are sold at a variety of retail outlets like convenience stores, smoke shops and over the Internet. The products are sold under the guise of “bath salts” or “plant food” but are comprised of a class of chemicals perceived as mimics of substances like cocaine, LSD and methamphetamines. Last week, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) Director Mark Gwyn told Senate Judiciary Committee members that synthetic drugs have the potential to eclipse methamphetamine as the most dangerous drug in Tennessee unless action is taken.

Gwyn said there are many new synthetic drugs on the horizon that have not made it to Tennessee yet, including one mimicking Oxycontin. He said the drug, which is produced in China, comes in a container similar to 5-hour energy drinks.

The Faulk bill is similar to Senate Bill 2172, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), passed by the Committee last month. However, that bill defined synthetic drugs in such a way as to capture any analogues. An analogue is a chemical compound having a similar structure to the banned drug. That proposal also prescribed tiered penalties for selling, using or possessing the drug.

Legislation passed by Senate Education Committee ties proposed scholarship changes to lottery revenues

The Senate Education Committee approved a bill this week that ties changes proposed by a Lottery Scholarship Stabilization Task Force to continued lottery revenue growth. The proposed changes in scholarship eligibility requirements for students attending four year institutions will not be implemented if the Lottery Corporation sustains the $10 million growth it experienced this year through the Spring of 2015.

The total costs of Tennessee’s Lottery Scholarship Program have outstripped lottery revenues — the net proceeds from the lottery games played plus interest from the lottery reserves — since 2008. To make up the difference, the state has dipped into the lottery reserves, an act of great concern to fiscally conservative policy makers and higher education officials who feared the lottery reserve balance would dwindle to an unsustainable level by fiscal year 2021. These concerns prompted Lt. Governor Ramsey to appoint a bi-partisan Senate Lottery Stabilization Task Force which included the state’s top higher education officials, key State Senators and the Tennessee Treasurer, Comptroller and Secretary of State.

Senate Bill 2514, sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), would require students who attend a four-year institution to meet both the ACT and grade point average (GPA) requirements to receive the full award beginning in the fall semester in 2015. However, under the new amendment, that provision would only apply if the Lottery does not sustain the projected revenue growth.

“Unlike those in Washington, Tennessee is required to actually pay its bills on time – and we do,” said Lt. Gov. Ramsey. “I am committed to rewarding excellence in the classroom and giving a leg up to students who work hard. I am also committed to paying for it. This amendment will accomplish both goals in a common sense fashion.”

“We must have a fiscally sound lottery scholarship program that will not only ensure stability for the immediate future of the fund, but will also make sure it will be there for the next generation of students,” said Senator Gresham. “If the $10 million improvement is sustainable into 2015, this amendment would keep the current requirements for students attending four-year institutions in place.”

The plan adopted by the Task Force would have also provided financial assistance to financially-needy undergraduate students who are residents of the state. Approximately 5,600 more recipients would be served for each $10 million in funding provided to the Tennessee Student Assistant Award (TSAA) under the recommendation. The grants would be available to non-traditional students of any age, including laid-off workers and other students. That provision would also sunset if the $10 million is sustained and current eligibility requirements continue to remain in effect.

If the revenues fall short of the goal, the award to non-traditional students would apply and students who attend a four-year institution and meet one of the criteria (ACT or GPA) would be eligible for the two-year award amount. It also provides that students who meet one of the criteria and retain the award through year two would be eligible for a full award in year three. Award amounts for students who attend two-year institutions would remain unchanged under both plans.

Issues in Brief

DUI / Child Endangerment — Legislation was approved by the full Senate that ensures a multiple DUI offender receives the appropriate punishment when he or she endangers a child in their vehicle by driving under the influence. Currently, multiple offenders do not receive an enhanced sentence like first offenders due ambiguity in the language of a 2005 law which enhanced penalties for child endangerment for DUI offenders. Senate Bill 2607 makes sure state law is clear for multiple DUI offenders that the punishment for child endangerment, which is 30 days, runs consecutively with any other sentence received. The bill is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet).

Motorcycle Safety / Children — The Senate Transportation approved Senate Bill 74 on Wednesday which prohibits the operator of a motorcycle from transporting a child whose feet cannot reach the foot pegs as a passenger. The safety legislation prescribes a $50 fine for violation. The bill is sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville).

Impersonation of U.S. Armed Forces — Legislation that would make it a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person to falsely represent they are a member of the U.S. Armed Forces has advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Senate Bill 2287, sponsored by Senator Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), creates a Class B misdemeanor offense for a person falsely representing to be or to have been a member of the United States Armed Forces when their intentions are fraudulent.