If you haven't yet read the Indy's preview of this year's legislative short session, visit the story to learn about the challenges with this year's budget and the cuts that will affect schools, corrections and other important state and local services.
We wanted to include information about local legislation, but we ran out of room. In Durham, city and county leaders want tougher penalties on witness intimidation and to rewrite somewhat ambiguous guidelines on development protest petitions that last year resulted in a lawsuit against the county.
Tougher charges in witness intimidation
The week before a prominent armed robbery trial in 2008, Assistant District Attorney Stormy Ellis has some concerns that the man she was prosecuting, Loisie Cooper, had been harassing his victim not to testify in court. To protect the victim, Ellis asked a judge to revoke the suspect’s bond.
The judge denied her request. And just days before the trial was to begin, a brutal beating sent the victim and key witness to the hospital. Despite his injuries, he still showed up, walking with a cane, to testify and help convict Cooper. But not everyone is that courageous.
As the prosecutor tasked with trying gang-related cases, Ellis said she sees various forms of witness intimidation and harassment all to frequently, especially in gang and domestic violence cases.
Years ago, Durham’s Crime Cabinet considered lobbying for a state-funded witness protection program, which other states have. But considering the fiscal burdens the state is currently under, the Cabinet, City Council and County Commissioners moved forward with a proposal to strengthen witness intimidation laws.
Sen. Floyd McKissick already has drafted the legislation, which would give prosecutors more leeway in introducing a witness’s statement, even if that witness won’t testify because of threats, which is consistent with federal law, Ellis said. The second part of the bill increases the punishment for intimidating a witness. Currently, threatening a witness is classified as a Class H felony, which rarely results in prison time, Ellis said. The proposal would change the punishment for intimidation to correspond with the crime in question, so if someone was accused of trying to intimidate a witness in a murder, which is a Class A felony, they would be facing a Class B felony charge, which has a much stronger punishment than the current Class H. This could mean years in prison, instead of just a slap on the wrist.
Durham is not the only jurisdiction where the phrase “Snitches get stitches” seems to be keeping people out of court. Ellis hopes once McKissick files the proposal this month at the state Senate, that it will gain support.
“Hopefully it will be approved this coming year, unless it gets bogged down in any particular controversy,” McKissick said.
Clearer rules on protest petitions
A Durham County ordinance on protest petitions could get the overhaul. And if it does, the change could protect the county from more criticism, and maybe even more lawsuits.
County Attorney Lowell Siler has asked Durham’s state lawmakers to carry forward a very local piece of legislation that would nix ambiguous rules the county currently has for residents who want to file a petition in protest of zoning changes near their homes. The existing rules, filed in the City-County Unified Development Ordinance (see section 3.5.13), are not clearly defined when it comes to who must sign the petition. In December, a group of South Durham residents and environmentalists filed a lawsuit against the county when the parties disagreed on whether the requirements had been met.
Siler proposes adopting the city’s much more straightforward ordinance, which would avoid some of this controversy in the future. There’s no reason why this change couldn’t be made at the local level instead of at the legislature, McKissick said. He’s not sure whether the request will make it to the state, or left to the county commissioners to amend.
Durham County Commissioners also put their support behind a bill that would enable school systems to get refunds for the sales taxes they pay the state on items such as construction materials, but that bill didn't get much support last session, and probably won't gather much steam this time around, either, McKissick said.
Commissioners also backed a bill that would study the possible impact of raising the age to which students must attend school or face legal action. Right now students must attend until age 16. In past years, several legislators have pushed for changes to the compulsory attendance law that would make the age 17 or 18. This has been a long-standing priority with several Durham leaders for years, including the Board of County Commissioners. It's unclear whether the study bill will move forward in the Senate, where it is currently sitting.