House crime bill responds to headlines

Posted June 18, 2014

A section of the wall surrounding the N.C. Executive Mansion was spray-painted with graffiti on June 5-6, 2012.

— House leaders unveiled a package of changes Wednesday that would make it a felony to give cellphones to inmates or steal a Venus flytrap, raise the retirement age for judges and make some graffiti a felony.

The omnibus, Senate Bill 594, includes several provisions prompted by the kidnapping of Frank Janssen, the father of Wake County prosecutor Colleen Janssen, a crime that was orchestrated via cellphone by a drug dealer the younger Janssen had sent to prison.

  • It makes it a felony, instead of a misdemeanor,  for someone to give a prison inmate a cellphone or for an inmate to possess one.  
  • It raises the penalty for threatening or assaulting a government official in the exercise of that official's duties.
  • It adds a new felony for threatening or assaulting any other person in retaliation against a government officer. 
  • It raises the penalty for an inmate to solicit the commission of a crime by someone outside the prison. 

The measure also raises the penalties for violating state laws governing "amusement devices" such as carnival rides and adds a $50,000 fine and likely prison time for any ride operator who willfully violates the laws in a way that causes serious injury or death. That provision is in response to the Vortex accident at the 2013 State Fair, where a family was injured after the ride owner and operator allegedly tampered with a safety mechanism. 

Senate Bill 594 would also raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 72 to 75. And it would ensure that the fingerprints of people who have had their criminal records expunged are removed from the state's fingerprint database.

It includes some changes in gun laws as well. It increases the penalty for a felon who has a firearm and for violations of concealed-carry laws. It also allows some Department of Public Safety officials to carry concealed weapons into areas where they're otherwise banned, as police are allowed to do. 

The bill was heard in House Judiciary Committee C, where members added two significant provisions to it.

One addition makes it an unfair trade practice for a company to post people's mugshots and then charge them money to take the photos down. The mugshots would remain public record.

Another provision was added just minutes after it was stripped out of another omnibus bill in the House Finance Committee Wednesday morning. It increases the penalty for graffiti vandalism to a Class 1 misdemeanor even for first-time offenders and to a felony if the cost to repair the damage is $1,000 or greater or if it's the third such conviction for the offender. 

"For spray paint?" asked Rep. Nathan Baskerville, D-Vance. "It just seems like a mighty stiff penalty." 

Rep. Nathan Ramsey, R-Buncombe, said the change was requested by local officials in his district. He said Asheville's growing graffiti problem has cost the city $200,000 to clean up this year alone.

Another provision was removed from the bill by the committee. It would have extended the statute of limitations for driving while impaired cases from the current two years to five years. Supporters of the change said it's needed because of ongoing backlogs at the State Crime Lab.

But the committee unanimously backed an amendment by Baskerville to delete the extension from the bill after Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow, and Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, spoke in support of it. Baskerville argued that  it was ridiculous to give prosecutors five years to charge someone with DWI because of the backlog.

"This is not the way to handle it," he said. "We can appropriate more funds. We can hire more staff at the crime labs."

"The state is the one that has caused this problem because the state has not sufficiently funded what needs to be done," Cleveland agreed. "That's the state's problem, not the defendant's problem."

The higher penalties instituted throughout in the bill will cost the state an estimated $3 million next fiscal year through more incarceration. The measure now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.


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