Legislative package addresses domestic violence, trafficking

      Missouri legislators passed a package of measures intended to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence and trafficking before the 2022 regular session drew to a close on May 13.  Senate Bill 775 contained language sponsored by several House members, and now awaits action by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Hannah Kelly (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “It’s our big legislative win for this session,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, who was the legislative liaison for the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence during the regular session. 

      The bill was handled in the House by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who was glad to see it reach the governor’s desk despite issues in the legislature that created challenges for all legislation this year.

      “At the end of the day the process that our founding fathers set out caused it to be that we were able to come together and accomplish something good despite our differences and that is a beautiful thing that everybody needs to walk away remembering should always be our highest priority.  You’re not going to find a better [issue] to do it on than this.”

      Kelly said of particular importance to her, personally, in SB 775 is the language that establishes the “Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.”  This seeks to make sure victims know their rights regarding the gathering of evidence and related medical exams; access to incident reports; and protections from intimidation and harassment by an attacker. 

      Kelly said someone important in her life is a victim of rape and, “The provisions in this bill, I believe, would’ve brought justice for this person in a swifter manner.”

      The Bill of Rights portion is meant to, among other things, give some clarity and guidance to victims, who often find themselves traumatized and with no knowledge of what to do or to whom to turn.

All [that a victim knows] is a really horrible thing has happened that nobody ever dreams will happen to them,” said Kelly.  “The heart and soul of it is protecting victims and providing stronger protections and providing education … and what greater cause to unite behind than educating and empowering victims in these horrible situations to know what their rights are and to know the pathway by which they can appropriately seek justice.”  

      SB 775 also clarifies definitions in Missouri law regarding “sexual contact” and “sexual conduct.”  Representative David Evans (R-West Plains) said he dealt with at least one case, during his 28 years as a judge, in which unclear definitions regarding contact with minor victims hindered prosecution.

      “Taking ambiguous law or badly written law and making it clear is important clearly for the victims of crime but also clarifies, which is required in criminal law, exactly what the crime is,” said Evans.  “None of us can be convicted of a crime that’s ambiguous.  That’s protection under due process … it’s good to have specific law especially when you’re dealing with a very serious felony.”

Representative David Evans (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      SB 775 would specify that no persons younger than 18 will be prosecuted for prostitution, and if located by law enforcement while engaged in commercial sexual acts, they will be considered a victim of abuse and referred to the Children’s Division and juvenile officers to receive help.  It also eliminates the requirement that a person under 18 and charged with prostitution must prove they were coerced to avoid conviction.

      These were provisions found in legislation sponsored by Representative Ed Lewis (R-Moberly), who said the laws regarding these individuals needs to be focused on getting them help. 

      “A lot of times a minor can be in that lifestyle and not even know that they’re being trafficked, not even know that they’re being abused.  They think, ‘Well no, I’m doing this of my own free will,’ but they’re not.  They’re being abused and used by some adult for their own gain, and we have to get them the help they need to help them to understand that this is not right,” said Lewis.  “Instead of looking at these people who have come to rescue them as rescuers they can look at them as the enemy and we have to make sure that they get the help that they need so they understand what their outcome should be and how to get back to what we would call a normal life free of abuse.”

      Other related sections deal with prosecuting those who attempted to engage in sexual acts or pornography-related offenses with individuals under 18. 

      The bill also contains language sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) dealing with orders of protection.  It would state that a person with an order of protection against them cannot skip a court date regarding that order and then plead ignorance to knowing it was still in effect.  He and Carter Dochler say this defense has often been successful for abusers who would violate an order and then say they didn’t know it was in place because they didn’t attend a hearing. 

      Roberts has often said that this and other proposals he has filed stem from his time in law enforcement – including as Joplin’s police chief and the director of the Department of Public Safety – and times in his career when he couldn’t help a victim because of how the law was written. 

      “Sometimes the law doesn’t serve the victim and sometimes, frankly, the process to provide due process to the person that’s accused ultimately re-victimizes the victim, so it’s been very frustrating to me throughout my [law enforcement] career.  Now I’m in a position to do something about it.”

      Along that same line, Roberts said a provision in SB 775 that is important to him is one that allows victims to testify via video rather than have to appear in court for a domestic violence proceeding. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Roberts says too often, a victim is afraid to proceed with prosecution for fear or retribution by their abuser.  This provision addresses that fear; specifically that requiring a victim to appear in court creates an instance in which their abuser will know where and when to find them. 

“If you read the newspapers you will frequently see where a domestic violence case was dismissed because the victim didn’t show up to testify.  I can’t tell you how many times that’s because they were afraid to show up but I guarantee you it’s a significant part of the number of people who don’t show up, and why.”

      With all these issues, legislators have to craft language that protects victims but also allows for due process for those who are accused.  Evans believes with SB 775, Missouri gets closer to finding the right balance between those considerations, “and again that’s one thing I really enjoy doing, is balancing the rights of those that are charged but making it absolutely clear to protect the victims of the crimes as well.  I think we’re getting there.”

      The House vote that sent SB 775 to the governor was 141-0.  Carter Dochler said the Coalition is, “very grateful and really excited [that] at a time where there has been so much turbulence on different issues that everybody could really come together and find agreement on items that would make things better for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or some other related judicial proceedings.”

SB 775 includes several other provisions, including those that would make it a crime for any coach of minors to abuse a minor, whereas currently law speaks only to high school coaches; extends protections against the release of a victim’s personal information to include their personal email address, birth date, health status, or any information from a forensic testing report; and further restricts when the prior sexual conduct of a witness or victim in a sexual offense case may be inquired about in a legal proceeding.

House bill would increase penalties for ‘swatting’

      The House has voted to increase the penalties for deliberately reporting someone to law enforcement with the intent or hurting, embarrassing, or intimidating them; a practice commonly referred to as “swatting.”

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Under House Bill 1704 a person would be guilty of making a false report if they intentionally make, or causes to be made to any enforcement organization, a false report that could cause bodily harm as a result of the emergency response. 

      “The bill hinges on the statement that it is with reckless disregard of causing bodily harm to any person as a direct result of an emergency response,” said bill sponsor Lane Roberts (R-Joplin)“It’s an effort to keep people from weaponizing the public safety system to harm other people; sometimes physically, sometimes by reputation or intimidation.”

      “This also deals with the use of the system to humiliate, embarrass, or have people forcibly removed from premises, and this is often aimed at minorities, aimed at religious differences, sexual orientation … recent news has been replete with that kind of conduct,” said Roberts.  “This bill prohibits that kind of use of public safety to harm others, to harm their reputation, to harm them physically, or otherwise damage an individual.”

      Those who make false reports that result in a person being killed or seriously hurt could be charged with a class-B felony, punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison.  Otherwise, false reports of a felony crime would be a class-C felony (up to 7 years in prison) and false reports of a misdemeanor would be a class-B misdemeanor (up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000). 

      Roberts and other legislators have discussed in recent years how incidents of “swatting” seem to have increased, and in some cases those have resulted in deaths and serious injuries.  Roberts’ legislation is the latest attempt to address that.

      “Somebody will call in a false report that generates a response from a police agency, sometimes a SWAT team, which by its very nature, puts people at risk of injury or death, both the police officer and folks inside.”

      His proposal was sent to the Senate with unanimous bipartisan support, 142-0.  Democrats contributed to the language of HB 1704, and Representative Ashley Bland Manlove (D-Kansas City) spoke in support of it.  She said she remembers a recent “swatting” incident that happened just across the state line from her district, in Kansas.

      “Somebody he was on [a] video game with in California was apparently mad that they had lost the game and used an app to deploy SWAT to the man in Overland Park’s house saying, ‘He’s got somebody in the house and they’ve got hostages,’ so SWAT comes in hot immediately.  Unfortunately the young man was a black man,” said Bland Manlove.  “I’ve also heard of this being used, as [Representative Roberts] said, in domestic disputes.  Somebody’s mad that they don’t have the kids or they have to pay child support so then they constantly use the police, filing false reports against the other partner.”

The bill was also the product of bipartisan cooperation, with the inclusion of changes authored by Representative Robert Sauls (D-Kansas City).

      In addition to possible incarceration and fines, violations of the language of HB 1704 could result in civil penalties.   

      “Any person who makes a false report in violation of this section for the purpose of infringing on another person’s rights under the Missouri or the United States Constitution; unlawfully discriminating against another person; causing another person to be expelled from a place in which such person is lawfully located; damaging another person’s reputation or standing within the community, financial, economic, consumer or business partner interests may be required to pay punitive damages to the victim, so it addresses some of the more malicious forms of use of swatting,” said Roberts.

      HB 1704 was sent to the Senate with two full weeks remaining in the legislative session.

House acts to recognize and support 911 dispatchers

      The House has advanced multiple efforts this session to recognize the service of, and difficulties faced by, 911 dispatchers.  Three House bills include language that would add dispatchers to state statute’s definition of “first responders,” which would give them access to more support and benefits. A bipartisan group of lawmakers thinks it’s about time.

Representative Shane Roden (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Legislators say dispatchers are vitally important and are the first link in the chain of emergency response. 

      “They’re the first contact when you call 911,” said Representative Robert Sauls (D-Kansas City), who offered one such amendment to a bill that was sent to the Senate (House Bill 1637).  “Obviously you talk to an operator, and they have to go through a lot of stuff.  They have to go through a lot of turmoil, subject to very high intensity, stressful situations.”

      Because dispatchers aren’t considered “first responders,” they aren’t afforded benefits seen by EMTs, firefighters, police, and others.  That includes health and retirement benefits, but also help to deal with the stress of their job.  Lawmakers think that needs to change.

      Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin), whose extensive law enforcement career included time as Joplin’s police chief and director of the state’s Department of Public Safety, said, “I was a police officer for 43 years, and in my wildest nightmare I can’t imagine doing what those people do.”

“The fact that we have failed to recognize them as an integral part of the first response community, I think, is a real disservice to them.  They do their share and then some.  They’re often underappreciated.  They’re just a voice at the end of the radio frequency and people just forget how important they are.  Without them a lot of people get hurt.”

      Representative Chad Perkins (R-Bowling Green) worked for four years as a dispatcher.  He filed one of the bills to make dispatchers “first responders” (House Bill 1676, approved by one House committee).  He said this is the most stressful job in the field.

Representative Robert Sauls (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “The phone is ringing and its multiple phone calls, especially in one of those really high stressful situations.  You’ve got the phone ringing off the hook, a dozen people calling you, someone screaming at you in their greatest moment of need, you can’t visualize what’s happening because you’re not actually there but you’ve got to get that information, you have to take it down well and effectively and then put that information back out clearly to someone else who’s going.  It is an incredibly stressful job.  I think it is the most high-stress job in all of emergency services.  A person has to multitask at a very high level.”

      Roberts agreed, “Any time as a police officer I got a call, particularly for something of an emergency, we got that adrenaline rush that anybody else gets.  The dispatchers got the same adrenaline rush when they’re on the phone.  The difference is that when I got to the scene of that emergency that adrenaline is something that helped me deal with the issue.  The dispatchers, on the other hand, simply hang up and go on to the next emergency.  At night they’ll take all that adrenaline, those chemicals that come with that rush, and take it home with them.  They don’t get that same opportunity to use that.”

      Roberts and Perkins agree that dispatching is more than answering the phone and relaying a call.  Operators receive training for multiple contingencies and emergencies.

      “I’ve heard them do CPR instructions over the phone.  I’ve heard them talk about getting people out of fires over the phone, delivering babies over the phone,” said Roberts.

      Because of the high stress they face, on top of regularly updated training and often low pay, advocates say people who work as dispatchers rarely do it for very long.  Some areas of the state are having a hard time filling vacancies in call centers.

Representative Chad Perkins (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Perkins said by adding them to the definition of “first responders,” they would be afforded more state benefits.  This could be part of a larger effort to recruit and retain operators.

“You have some health-related benefits to it but there’s also, for the most part in the State of Missouri, first responders can retire on the LAGERS system at 55, so that would be something that would also be an added benefit as opposed to having to retire at 60 or 62.”

      Representative Shane Roden (R-Cedar Hill) is a firefighter and paramedic as well as a reserve sheriff’s deputy.  His House Bill 2381 has received initial approval in the House and contains the “first responder” definition language. 

He told his colleagues, “For the dispatchers that have always been there for us this is a step in the right direction, to acknowledge that they are the first responders that they are.”

House approves increased protections for domestic violence victims

      The House has voted to make several changes in state law meant to make victims of domestic violence safer.  It’s sponsored by a man who, during his career in law enforcement, was often frustrated by how laws limited what he could do to help victims.

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “This bill seeks to plug some of the gaps in our laws that allow abusers to circumvent the system and continue to use the system actually to further abuse their victims,” said Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin).

      A key provision of Roberts’ House Bill 1699 would specify that a defendant in an abuse case will be considered to have been notified of an order of protection if they are notified in any reasonable way.  In effect, this would make clear that orders of protection remain place until otherwise ordered by a court.  

      “What happens today is that when somebody files for an ex parte order and then a hearing is scheduled the temporary order stays in effect until the hearing.  If the abuser chooses not to show up in court and later pleads ignorance, he didn’t know what went on in court, there have been some successful defenses to violating the order because of this so-called ignorance.  What this bill does is say that when you get served that temporary, those provisions are going to remain in effect and they don’t expire simply because the hearing is being held.  Those protections go on and the individual can’t plead ignorance.”

      Jennifer Carter Dochler with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said this was the provision that was the most exciting.

      “Although all of them are going to have an important impact … that has been such a gap and has created so many safety issues for survivors,” said Carter Dochler.

      Another portion would allow victims in domestic violence cases to testify via video conference.  Roberts says often, domestic cases are dismissed because victims refuse to testify.

      “It’s not because the victim doesn’t want to be there.  The truth of the matter is in many cases the victim is simply afraid to be in the same room.  The victim does not want the abuser to know where they’re going to be at a particular time, and so it’s important that we give this person some kind of security if we possibly can,” said Roberts.

      Carter Dochler said victims who testify in court now often take great measures to plan for their own safety during that appearance. 

      “When I did court advocacy … we would have the bailiff walk us out and things like that, so just the ability to be able to teleconference in for getting your order of protection is also something that will be incredibly helpful for the safety of the victim, and may also increase the likelihood of somebody feeling comfortable continuing to pursue an order of protection,” said Carter Dochler. 

She said another hurdle for victims testifying for an order of protection, sometimes, is finding childcare, and video conferencing could negate that issue.

      HB 1699 would also specify that courts cannot make a victim or their family reveal in court the victim’s current address or workplace unless necessary. 

“This is something that you’d think would be common sense,” said Roberts.

      Earlier versions of the legislation had caused concern for some lawmakers, specifically that the video testimony provision would violate the constitutional right of accused abusers to face their accusers in court.  Roberts worked with other legislators to deal with issues in the bill leading to the version the House passed.

Representative Ian Mackey (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I was a little hesitant at first, I’ll admit.  I’m somebody who likes to protect the rights of those who wish to confront their accusers in court,” said Representative Ian Mackey (D), who is an attorney in St. Louis.  “Through conversations with [Roberts] and other folks involved in this issue I think the needle was threaded just as finely and carefully as it could be.  I think this protect victims.  It also protects the accused.  It’s a great product.”

      “The bill handler made some changes and I just think it made a much better bill.  It was a good bill to begin with but it needed some changes.  He did that,” said Robert Sauls, a Kansas City Democrat who is a former Jackson County Prosecutor and public defender. 

      Sauls told Roberts, “I appreciate your willingness to listen and the changes you made.”

      HB 1699 would also specify that when a defendant is ordered to pay the victim’s attorney fees, that order covers the entire proceeding; and that a person convicted of domestic assault who is ordered to attend a batterer-intervention program will be responsible for paying for that program.

      Carter Dochler said the legislation would make a number of small changes in Missouri law each of which would make a big difference in the lives of victims.

      “I really appreciate Representative Roberts’ commitment to finding gaps and figuring out what he can do to close them,” said Carter Dochler. 

      The House voted 147-0 to send the proposal to the Senate.

‘Bentley’s Law’ would mandate child maintenance for children whose parents die in DUI crashes

      People who are convicted of killing a parent or parents while driving drunk in Missouri could have to pay child support to surviving children, under a proposal now before a House committee. 

Representative Mike Henderson (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bill 1954 is also known as “Bentley’s Law.”  It would require that such convicted persons would have to pay maintenance to surviving children until they turn 18, or if they enroll in college, until they complete a degree or turn 21. 

      The bill specifies that a judge weighing a maintenance order should consider the financial needs of the children; the resources of the children’s caregivers, if any; the standard of living the children would have had; the children’s physical and emotional condition and needs; their physical and legal custody arrangements; and any child care expenses of surviving caregivers.

      Sponsor Mike Henderson (R-Bonne Terre) said the bill is about making sure children in this situation are taken care of.

      “Right now they have civil action they can take.  We all know that, but we also know one out of every seven drivers on the road are uninsured … so if you’re going to take civil action it’s usually with the insurance company … this bill doesn’t take away the civil action … but it gives them a chance to try to apply for child maintenance for the children left behind,” said Henderson.  “We’re not trying to put everybody back in prison … but just trying to get them to take some responsibility for these kids as they move forward.”

      Henderson was presented the idea for Bentley’s Law by Cecelia Williams.  In April of last year her son, his fiancée, and their 4 month-old son were killed in an accident involving an allegedly drunk driver.  She named the proposal after one of their surviving children, whom she is now raising. 

She told the House Committee on Crime Prevention that after the accident she did some research and found what she called a “ton” of repeat offenders.

      “It does not seem to stop.  I see people who will go to prison, they come back out and they’re a repeat offender again and they don’t learn.”

      “I wanted to make sure that these children who don’t have their families were going to have that financial stability for them, so that when they go on in life, even going to further their career that that money was going to be there for them,” said Williams.  “By creating Bentley’s Law I believe that’s what’s going to help the children and it’s going to help people to think twice and not do it again.”

      The committee also heard from Jennifer Wamsganz, Program Director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Missouri.

“Bentley’s Law better ensures justice and accountability for convicted impaired drivers.   MADD believes that passing Bentley’s Law will make people think twice before getting behind the wheel impaired.  If a person makes the choice to drive impaired and kills a parent the person will encounter another consequence for their deadly decision. 

      “To the victims of impaired drivers Bentley’s Law allows for another avenue of restitution to help injustice.”

      Committee chairman Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) told Henderson, “Civil remedies not withstanding there are many, many opportunities to escape responsibility by these drivers.  What really intrigues me about your bill is it gives the state a role in ensuring that those responsibilities are met.”

      The bill specifies that if surviving parents or guardians bring a civil suit against the person convicted of drunk driving, no maintenance will be ordered or it will be offset by any civil award that is granted.

      The committee is scheduled to vote next week on that bill.

New registry of murderers proposed

      Missouri’s current sex offender registry would be expanded to include a registry of individuals who are on probation or parole for first or second degree murder under a bill being considered in the House.

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The legislation would not simply add such individuals to the existing registry, according to bill sponsor Lane Roberts (R-Joplin)

“This is a separate column.  It does not mix the data.  It would rename the registry, ‘Sex offender and violent offender registry.’  Its purpose is to allow the public to know who is on parole for second degree murder,” Roberts told the Committee on Crime Prevention

Roberts explained that Missouri citizens often don’t know when someone guilty of such violent crimes is living or working near them.

“Conviction of second degree murder often is the result of a plea bargain.  Often the underlying conduct is first degree murder,” said Roberts.

Legislators on the committee asked whether such information is already available to the public through avenues such as the Missouri Court System’s Case.net website.  He said that isn’t always an avenue for an average Missourian. 

Further, he said such state-based resources won’t list such individuals when they come to Missouri from other states through the interstate compact, and most Missourians don’t even know that can happen.

      Testifying for the bill was Mona Lisa Caylor, who said it was a man on parole for a 1983 murder in Tennessee who murdered her sister, Willana “Anita” Dunn in 2016 and dropped her body down an abandoned mine shaft. 

      Caylor told legislators her sister allowed her killer into her life and was even renting her home from him.  She and her family knew nothing about his criminal background, or that the life story he had told them was a lie.

      “Why are paroled violent murderers allowed to be anonymous?” Caylor asked the committee.  “Why would we not want to know who is working, who is living in our community that’s a murderer?”

      “They deserve a second chance.  They get their chance.  There’s not a parole board that can ever guarantee that someone is not going to reoffend,” Caylor added.

      Representative Rasheen Aldridge Jr. (D-St. Louis) wondered what this registry would accomplish, and what it would mean for individuals who are trying to reintegrate into society after serving their prison time.

      That’s just my concern, that we’re only giving people that, once they do do their time and we say ‘second chances’ and we believe in second chances, that this is kind of giving them a second chance but also saying, ‘Watch out for Tim down the street,” said Aldridge.  “[I] think it’s a good idea but I don’t understand the accountability piece or really the reasoning of adding them to a registry and we’re not giving them either the services they need or truly trying to give them a second chance without a black cloud being over them.”

      Roberts acknowledged Aldridge’s concerns.  He said that while no one should assume that because someone has committed one murder that they will commit another, he feels that if someone has overcome their conscious to kill once it raises concern they could do it again.

      “People of a certain caliber or a certain level of criminal activity have a different propensity and the consequences of their actions have a different consequence to the victims associated with those crimes.  That’s why we have a sex offender registry, because of the consequences of the crimes that they commit,” said Roberts.

      The bill, House Bill 1705, specifies that individuals on this new registry would come off of it when they complete their probation or parole.  The committee voted 7-1 to advance the bill, which now faces another committee before it could go to the full House.

House bill would require ignition interlocks after first DUI

      Missourians would have to have their vehicles equipped with ignition interlock devices after their first drunk driving conviction, under a bill under consideration in the House.

Representative Mark Sharp (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Ignition interlock devices prevent a vehicle from starting if they register too great of an alcohol content in a breath test.  Current law requires a person to have a previous conviction for driving while intoxicated before restricting them to driving only vehicles equipped with such a device.  Under House Bill 1680 a court must prohibit anyone convicted of an intoxicated driving offense from driving unequipped vehicles for at least six months.

      Kansas City representative Mark Sharp (D) sponsors it.

      “It’s really about saving lives,” said Sharp.  “If you’ve had too many drinks when you’re leaving the bar and you can’t pass the test, you can’t drive.  That forces people to look at other options as far as Uber or having a friend come and pick them up, but it stops that person who is intoxicated from getting behind the wheel.”

      Sharp believes his bill would be a deterrent, not just by keeping people from driving drunk but by making them want to avoid a situation in which they could.

      “This should stop some folks from wanting to go out and getting drunk and driving too, because after your first offense you would be required to have [an ignition interlock device] instead of after your second or third,” said Sharp.  “I do think this will stop some folks.  If this gets promoted the right way hopefully we can get folks to not want to do it as much.”

      Sharp’s bill has had a hearing before the House Committee on Crime Prevention, which is chaired by former Police Chief and Department of Public Safety Director Lane Roberts (R-Joplin).  He expressed support for the idea.

      “I began my police career in 1971.  At that time the presumptive [blood alcohol content] level was .15 – nearly twice what it is today.  Even then we were killing about 25,000 people a year, nationally, due to drunk driving,” said Roberts.  “Anything that makes that activity more difficult certainly has my support and I appreciate [Representative Sharp] putting this forward.”

      Mothers Against Drunk Driving told the Committee that between 2006 and 2020, interlocks stopped 128,196 attempts to drive drunk in Missouri, with more than 11,000 of those incidents in 2020.  DUI deaths reportedly decreased by 15% in states that enacted laws such as HB 1680.

      The committee has not voted on Sharp’s legislation.

Bill would make cost to apply for law enforcement jobs more manageable

      A bill aimed at addressing a shortage of law enforcement officers has advanced through a House committee.

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bill 1703 is sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin), who was a chief of police in multiple communities including Joplin and is a past director of the Department of Public Safety.  He said before a person can apply for employment as a law enforcement officer in Missouri they must first have their license. 

      “What that means is the officer is going to invest somewhere around $6,000 and, depending on whether they attend the day academy or night academy, four to six months of their lives with no guarantee of a job.  The result, in some cases, is they merely have a $6,000 debt,” said Roberts. 

      Roberts’ bill would create the “Peace Officer Basic Training Tuition Reimbursement Program.”  This would pay back individuals for that training over a period of four years if they find a law enforcement job and retain it for four years. 

      Roberts told the Committee on Crime Prevention his bill aims to make the potential cost of training less of a barrier, particular for two groups of people he hopes to incent toward pursuing law enforcement careers.

      “I’m interested in attracting some of those people who are 27, 28, 29 years old, who have a little life experience, have some idea of what they’re getting into.  Unfortunately many of those people will have mortgages, they’ll be married, have children, and the cost of burdening their family with a $6,000 debt with no guarantee of getting a job certainly would give them pause before they would apply,” said Roberts.

      “Many of the minority categories – people that we have worked very hard to attract – find that $6,000 up-front fee to be an absolute barrier, not just an inhibitor.  This would give them the opportunity to have a law enforcement career.”

      HB 1703 would also require that law enforcement instructors and their curriculum be approved by the Department of Public Safety.  This stemmed from an amendment offered by Representative Kevin Windham (D-Hillsdale) to last year’s version of the legislation.  Windham said it was in answer to something that happened in St. Louis County.

Representative Kevin Windham (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “We had a police trainer that used some racially-charged language, and as our law stands right now that person would be able to go to any other law enforcement training facility throughout the state.  The amendment to Representative Roberts’ bill will make it where a person that participates in behavior that is less than what we would expect, they won’t be able to bounce around from law enforcement training facility to law enforcement training facility.”

      The bill carries a potential cost to the state of more than $5.5-million. 

      “While I don’t pretend that that’s not a substantial amount of money I would submit to you that at a time when we are having trouble recruiting officers, we’re having trouble finding minority officers, we’re having trouble retaining officers, that (nearly) $6-million is a fairly insignificant amount to be able to correct that in a significant way.”

      Last year’s version the legislation was approved by the House 152-1 but it stalled in the Senate.  HB 1703 has been approved by the Crime Prevention committee and needs one more committee’s action before going to the full House.

House logs 372 proposals on first day of filing for 2022 session

      Wednesday at the Missouri Capitol there was a sense of new energy in the air.  Christmas decorations were going up, the weather was that of a spring day, and most of all, new bills were dropping everywhere.  December 1 is a day when Missourians get a first look at what legislators will consider as the filing of bills for the 2022 legislative session began.

Representative Cyndi Buchheit-Courtway files a piece of legislation for the 2022 session. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “Prefiling day is basically a holiday if you’re an elected official down here in Jefferson City.  It’s a good day to be back in the building, it’s exciting.  You can kind of feel in the air that it’s almost time to get back into the swing of things,” said Representative Mark Sharp (D-Kansas City).

      Farmington Republican Dale Wright said it’s often better for legislation to be filed early, as that can give it a better chance of gaining traction early in the session and a better chance at passage.  That means a lot of proposals are brought in on day 1.

      “It’s amazing how many bills get filed.  I’m always amazed at all of the work that House Research and the analysts do.  They don’t get enough credit,” said Wright.

Click here to view the bills filed in the House for the 2022 legislative session.

      For some legislators there is some strategy involved in whether they want to put a proposal forward sooner or later.

      “I’ve spoken to other members that believe if they prefile something it gives the opposition a month to work on attacking that bill,” said Representative Nick Schroer (R-O’Fallon)“I’m one that’s fully transparent.  People know what I’m going to file, they know where I stand on issues, and give them an extra month, I don’t care.  I just think that voters and the constituents need to know what work is being done in the interim, what work is going to be done in 2022.”

      Wright said Missourians should know that it’s a hectic day in the Capitol.

      “I truly believe that the people who are serving up here are serving for the right reasons, and that is to be advocates and be the voice of the people back home, and wo when we file these bills it’s usually for something that helps our constituents back home, but in general, also for the State of Missouri.”

      Prefiling can feel very different for House Democrats, who face a supermajority of Republicans.  Kansas City Democrat Ashley Aune said even when proposing legislation they know will be opposed, members of her caucus can be serving a purpose.  She said one piece of advice she has held onto came from fellow Representative Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis).

Legislators can begin filing legislation for the coming session on December 1 of the preceding year. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “She tells me that filing a piece of legislation as a member of the superminority is like starting a conversation, and that’s what this is for us, especially with the bills that we know aren’t going to go anywhere.  It gives us a chance to start a conversation not only with our constituents to signal that we are working for them and doing the work that they sent us down here to do, it gives us an opportunity to have the conversation with our colleagues across the aisle and say, ‘Hey, this is a priority for me.  Where can we meet in the middle?’”

      Sharp said the enthusiasm of filing day is encouraging, but it’s also a reminder to be thoughtful in what is filed.

      “A lot of times people swing for the fences and a lot of times that’s just not feasible in most cases, especially as a member of the superminority.  Sometimes you have to just get some of the breadcrumbs that haven’t been picked up in the past,” said Sharp.

      Joplin Representative Lane Roberts (R) said he believes it’s important for each legislator to give consideration to not only their own bills, but what others are filing, and that includes those in the opposing party.

      “The fact is that that there’s an awful lot of people on that floor who are sincere.  They want to do the right thing, and when they file bills it’s because they believe that it has some meaning.  Some, maybe more than others, but none of it is meaningless, and whether you’re one side of the aisle or the other, I’ve found that people on the opposite side of the aisle from me sometimes say very smart things,” said Roberts.  “Listening to folks who are presenting the bill, listening to what they have to say, it’s changed my mind a time or two.  It has overcome some preconceived notions that while I may not intended to have it, it just happened.”

      On Wednesday in the House, 372 measures were filed for the 2022 session.  The session begins January 5.

Lawmaker to continue focus on domestic violence issues

      A lawmaker with decades of experience in law enforcement plans to file more legislation meant to help victims of domestic violence in ways he wished he could have during his career. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) said in his career, including as Joplin’s Police Chief, he was often frustrated at seeing how abusers used the court system to continue to intimidate and persecute victims.

      “What you’re looking at is … my efforts to remedy things that I’ve seen go wrong, things that I believe have been wrong, and to do it in a way that doesn’t undermine the intent of a fair and due process,” said Roberts. 

      “Over the years I found myself dealing with a number of different circumstances wherein I truly thought the right thing to do in protecting the victim, frankly, was not provided for in law.  So I wound up having to explain to victims why I couldn’t do the things that the victim and I both knew were in their best interest.  I watched abusers and, in some cases, their representatives twist, manipulate, take advantage of loopholes, doing things that I think the law provided for but not by intent,” said Roberts.  “It was a result of trying to ensure that we treated both sides of the discussion fairly.  Someone who’s been accused of a crime is innocent until they’re proven guilty, so we do need to make that acknowledgement.  We do need to make sure that they receive due process.  But, if the end result is the other side of that equation is abused or treated unfairly, that doesn’t make any sense.  There’s no balance there.”

      Jennifer Carter Dochler with the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence says the issues the bill would address are ones seen time and time again in cases throughout Missouri.

      “Individuals who are abusive are very good at finding any loophole in the protections that we’ve helped establish.  This bill is absolutely trying to address multiple loopholes that have been identified that prevent the court from doing their best at protecting victims.”

      Roberts proposes specifying that when a person receives notice from a court that a hearing will be held on an order of protection against them, that serves as notification of any orders the court issues on the date of that hearing.  He said this is because often a person who is the subject of an order of protection will violate it, then say in their defense that they didn’t attend the hearing and therefore didn’t know the order had been put in place.  He said this amounts to pleading ignorance, and case law has supported this defense.

      “What I’m trying to do is remove the ambiguity.  You know you’ve been charged.  You’ve been made aware of the hearing.  I think the presumption needs to be the person did, in fact, get notified, not accept the presumption that they didn’t,” said Roberts.

      Carter Dochler said by the time an order of protection hearing is held, a victim has, “already asked the court for safety, and so let’s try to reduce a burden that we have continued to hear, over the years, creates safety issues.”

      Another provision would allow victims to testify in court via video conferencing.  Carter Dochler said in addition to victims having to make time to go to court over and over, each time having to incur costs for things like travel and childcare, there are many safety concerns for them when testifying in court.  Allowing them to provide testimony over video would be a simple fix.

      “Their abusive partner is going to know exactly when they’re going to be there, what time.  Although some courts try to put safety precautions in place … there’s still a safety risk for someone parking, walking into the courthouse, having to wait, how they’re going to leave,” said Carter Dochler.

      Roberts called the video conferencing language one of the pieces of the bill he’s the most committed to, because he’s seen that victims can often be reluctant to testify.

      “It’s difficult to describe, for those of us who’ve never experienced it, what it must be like to be the victim of repeated, and in some cases, vile abuse, to have to sit in the same room with [the person responsible] and have their lawyer pick you apart or have them staring at you with the intent of intimidating you,” said Roberts.  “How many people don’t show up to court because they don’t want to experience that?  How much fear does that create in the mind of somebody who maybe had it in mind that they were going to go forward and then it comes down to the reality of facing somebody in the same room?”

      The bill would also specify that victims and their witnesses don’t have to reveal home or workplace addresses when testifying in court, unless the court deems it necessary.

      “In many cases abusers and wrongdoers will continue to do things that are abusive and wrong for the purpose of advancing their interests in court, and that includes intimidating, threatening, or physically harming witnesses and victims,” said Roberts.  “What we’re really talking about here is giving them some level of comfort that people won’t know where to find them if they step up and do the right thing.”

      A provision the Coalition specifically wanted would clarify that a court can order payment of attorney fees incurred by a victim before, throughout, and after a proceeding.  Carter Dochler said because the current statute includes the word, “or,” an attorney successfully argued in one case that the abuser wouldn’t have to cover fees for all of those time periods.

      “This is another instance where grammar does matter,” said Carter Dochler.  “The intention has always been that somebody could request the respondent to cover reasonable court fees … we’re taking this opportunity to clarify what the intention was.”

      Roberts said based on the response he’s gotten from advocates, he already plans to change some of the language he’s prepared.  In particular, he expects to amend a provision that would bar prosecutors from offering plea bargains to defendants facing certain levels of domestic violence charges. 

      “Maybe we overshot on that,” said Roberts. 

      Other pieces of this bill would require anyone convicted of domestic violence to pay $1,000 to a shelter in the same city or county as the victim; and require that when they are ordered to take a class on domestic violence, they must pay for it.

      In the 2021 session Roberts proposed other domestic violence statute changes that became law in June.  These allowed for orders of protection to be extended for up to a lifetime; covered pets under orders of protection; and expanded the definition of “stalking” to include the use of technology such as GPS and social media, or the use of third parties. 

      Roberts said those pieces of legislation drew something of a “fan following” in Missouri, and for good reason.

      “Many people understand that domestic violence is a real part of everyday life for some people, and hopefully folks have begun to realize that those of us who’ve never been in those situations really cannot understand how horrible it is to live in constant fear, and in the home that’s supposed to be your haven and your safe place,” said Roberts.  “I’ve just seen it for the better part of five decades and the things that we’re talking about here are those kind of individual elements that I feel I can do to maybe remedy some of that.”

      Carter Dochler said the Coalition is grateful for Roberts’ focus on these issues.

      “Representative Roberts is doing an amazing job listening directly from constituents in his community about the barriers they’re experiencing.  He’s also taking his prior law enforcement career and barriers he experienced and he’s trying to address those things, and he’s to be commended,” said Carter Dochler.

      Roberts plans to file this legislation on or after December 1, when prefiling of bills for the 2022 session begins.