Law officers' agenda targets copper theft, domestic abuse
Stealing copper would become a felony
Copper thefts, defendants' previous perjury convictions, trial technicalities and domestic violence top the legislative agenda for police and prosecutors across the state.
Yesterday the Law Enforcement Coalition presented its 2007 legislative package of four draft bills and one resolution. The coalition consists of all four county police chiefs plus the U.S. attorney, state attorney general and city prosecutor.
One of the proposals would put more teeth into laws protecting victims of domestic violence. Dubbed the Protect Victims of Domestic Violence Act, the bill would heighten charges for murder, assault and terroristic threatening when they involve victims who have protective orders.
"Most of our murders are related to domestic violence," Maui Police Chief Thomas Phillips said at a news conference at the Attorney General's Office. "I think it'll encourage more victims to seek these court orders against offenders if the law has more teeth to it."
Under the bill, for example, a misdemeanor assault would become a felony assault if committed by someone targeted by a protective order.
Other crimes involving a protective order also would move up -- including manslaughter to second-degree murder, and second-degree murder to first-degree.
The past year also saw a rise in copper thefts, with more than $300,000 in damage to state freeways since May as copper wiring from about 100 light poles was ripped out and sold for profit.
Phillips said last week that suspects removed rain gutters over two nights and received only $48 for it. But the damage done to the nearby medical facility cost about $2,500.
The coalition's proposed bill would make copper theft a felony. It would also require copper sellers to show proof of purchase -- through a receipt or affidavit -- to scrap metal dealers.
For dealers in violation, "it's going to be a misdemeanor, and they would run the risk of having their licenses revoked," said city Prosecutor Peter Carlisle.
Two additional bills would "level the playing field" for crime victims, said state Attorney General Mark Bennett. One would allow juries to learn whether a defendant has a previous conviction of perjury or other charge of dishonesty.
Currently, information about previous dishonesty convictions is released to the jury only for the accuser, not the defendant.
"This is a decision that has been followed by no other court anywhere," Bennett said. "In criminal cases, trials are supposed to convict the guilty and free the innocent."
The bill can expect resistance from the public defender's office, said Chief Deputy Public Defender Timothy Ho.
"We will be opposing any efforts to be able to introduce evidence of conviction, because (defendants) should be judged on what they're being charged with," Ho said. "We would feel it would unfairly prejudice the defendants' constitutional right to testify, and it would set a bad precedence."
Ho said the burden of proof lies on prosecutors, who should be held to a higher standard.
"The difference is the victims are the ones making the accusation," Ho said. "People can be accused unfairly and without any basis, and they have to answer to it."
The coalition's fourth bill would bar a court from reversing a conviction based on erroneous jury instructions.
A recent state Supreme Court decision allows for a reversal of conviction if jury instruction is incorrect, regardless of whether the defendant objected or proposed erroneous instruction.
"We don't want unfair trials," Bennett said on the technicality issue. "Criminal trials are not games. It's not like playing Monopoly or Scrabble."
The coalition also proposed a resolution creating a task force to look at how to retain more police officers, including issues of pay or retirement. Collectively the four counties have 330 vacancies. In the Honolulu Police Department alone, 182 officers are set to retire, said Police Chief Boisse Correa.
"The reality is, if we do not keep our officers, very shortly we won't have police patrolling the streets," Correa said.
LAW ENFORCEMENT PACKAGE FOR 2007
Four county police chiefs and the offices of the U.S. attorney, state attorney general and city prosecutor proposed four pieces of legislation they will introduce this year:
» The Protect Victims of Domestic Violence Act would raise the seriousness of violent offenses committed by those subject under protective orders. Misdemeanor assault and misdemeanor terroristic threatening would become felonies. Manslaughter would become second-degree murder, and a second-degree murder would become first-degree murder.
» Another bill would create a felony of copper theft, and require scrap dealers to ask for proof of purchase in order to curb recent thefts.
» A third bill would amend the state Constitution to allow testifying defendants in criminal cases to be impeached with evidence of prior convictions involving dishonesty.
» Last, the coalition will introduce a bill that would bar a court from reversing a conviction based on erroneous jury instruction, unless the defendant objected to the instruction or the instruction likely changed the result of the case.