HELENA — As cities and counties around the state worry about how they will pay for adding employees to handle the extra work generated from the passage of a victims' rights amendment to the Constitution last fall, officials called on the Legislature to pass a bill that would give police officers, courts and others guidelines on how to implement Marsy’s Law.
Though many who testified on House Bill 600, carried by Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, are concerned about how Marsy’s Law will affect local governments, they say some sort of legislative action is needed to clarify how they operate going forward.
“While Marsy’s Law can be seen as a positive step toward treating crime victims with care and respect, it also raises questions with the community and the professionals that will be tasked with carrying out these new rights,” Garner said Monday before the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s important we have something to pass this session to ensure uniform application of the constitutional rights and provide statutory guidance.”
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill Monday.
Marsy's Law was passed as Constitutional Initiative 116 by voters last November. It creates a new section of the state Constitution and includes 18 rights for crime victims, including the right to refuse interviews and to be notified of all steps of the legal process.
The bill would give the Department of Justice the ability to write standard language that would appear on "Marsy's cards" that are now required to be handed out to victims. It also clarifies the duties of a police officer to notify a victim of his or her rights. Under Marsy’s Law, victims could include those related to the direct victim of a crime, but the bill would require officers to focus notification efforts on the direct victim.
The bill would also define the crimes covered under Marsy’s Law to include homicides, assaults, sexual assaults, certain discrimination laws, elder abuse, abuse of the developmentally disabled, child labor laws and securities fraud.
In addition, the legislation would clarify that Marsy's Law applies only to people in the common sense, not other legal entities such as corporations. It would also dictate victims could chose to opt out of receiving information on their case if it goes forward, as well as decline services such as counseling. Courts would decide when victim information would be shared as part of the legal proceedings.
Sarah Sexe, the city attorney for Great Falls, said that while Marsy’s Law is well-intended, it carries unexpected costs and requirements and that the initiative language was overly broad and ambiguous.
It has already cost the city of Great Falls $90,000 to implement so far, including hiring additional prosecutor staff. Municipal court judges and the police department have indicated they would need additional staff.
Rich McLane, deputy chief of police in Bozeman, said his community is working to follow Marsy’s Law even though it does not take effect until the summer, but some of the requirements are still murky.
“This will help us get a clear roadmap, a clear defiition, so that we can hit the ground July 1 with our best foot forward.”
Anna Saverud, the domestic violence prosecutor for the city of Bozeman, said the city has been working to follow Marsy’s Law since last November, but it still needs more guidance.
“This is really uncharted territory for all of us in the criminal justice system,” she said. “This is not a perfect bill but it’s a step in the right direction. While there are still a lot of questions outstanding, we think this is a good start.”
But Chuck Denowh, who was the sponsor of the initiative and runs the organization Marsy’s Law for All, said the bill is in conflict with the intent of Marsy’s Law and runs contrary to the language of the initiative.
“This is a departure from the intent of the initiative and dilutes the rights of Montanans,” Denowh said. “Marsy’s Law does not say only some victims have constitutionally protected rights. The language is clear. It refers to all victims of crimes.”
Marty Lambert, the Gallatin County attorney, said that Marsy’s Law can’t be fixed by the Legislature.
“It’s largely going to be up to the courts to sort out what all this means,” Lambert said. “The voters have given us our marching orders.”