Karen Benner

Karen Benner is a victim witness program director with the city of Billings. City Attorney Brent Brooks believes a staff member must be added to comply with Marsy's Law, passed Tuesday by Montana voters. Benner is pictured in Billings Municipal Court.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and Billings City Attorney Brent Brooks are working quickly to comply with the notification requirements of Marsy’s Law, approved Tuesday by Montana voters by a 65 percent margin.

Constitutional Initiative 116, the Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, assures crime victims, among other things, the right to be notified and to be heard “in any proceeding involving the release, plea, sentencing, disposition, adjudication or parole of the defendant or youth accused of delinquency and any proceeding implicating the rights of the victim.”

Twito said this week that information technology vendors are visiting Billings next week to update his office software. That software allows crime victims a password to access updates in their case.

The new law requires that crime victims be handed a Marsy’s card, directing them how to access information on the case they’re involved in. The two prosecutors are cooperating to develop the card and get it in the hands of people who deal with crime victims, including law enforcement and social services like Angela's Piazza and YWCA Billings.

Twito said the new law probably won’t require hiring additional staff, but not so for Brooks’ office, which has a higher volume of cases.

Brooks and City Administrator Tina Volek plan to ask the Billings City Council for an additional employee to update information however city officials decide to deliver it, through a website, phone or text delivery system, Brooks said.

The new position is expected to cost the city $66,000, including salary and benefits. Brooks said he’ll seek to hire a person trained as a victim witness specialist.

“We are trying to use technology as much as possible to comply with Marsy’s Law,” Brooks said.

Brooks said the new law also “greatly expands” the definition of who is a victim. For example, people who are victimized in a crash by someone driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs must be notified of the offender's court schedule to, for example, help the victim seek money to meet his or her insurance deductible.

“It greatly expands the potential responsibility of our office and the county attorney’s office,” Brooks said.

Brooks said the additional notification requirements could mean that “some court appearances that happen quickly now may not happen as quickly.” Changes in pleas “will likely be slower than they have been in the past, because the victim has the right to appear before the court and comment on the change of plea.”

Twito said he’s in favor of parts of the new law, but would have preferred it to be enacted statutorily rather than by constitutional initiative.

Twito said he worries about the way some provisions of Marsy’s Law will be interpreted by the courts. For example: Will victims have the right to appointed counsel if they believe their rights are not being adhered to?

“Will my office have to have a special prosecutor? What if (victims) are financially unable” to hire an attorney, Twito said. “From a financial standpoint, that would be massive.”

On the plus side, Twito said, the law makes clear that victims are to be paid restitution first. “I think that’s great,” he said. “Often in the criminal justice system, victims can be seen as secondary.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.