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Capitol issues

The sculpture “Montana” atop the state Capitol in Helena towers over the life-size statue of Montana Territorial Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher astride his horse.

House Bill 421 aims to stop unintended consequences of the criminal justice reform law enacted in 2017.

Legislators didn't intend for shoplifting to increase, but that crime is up 20 percent from 2016 in Billings, with 1,203 shoplifting reports last year. Lawmakers didn't intend to hinder law officers from keeping the peace, but the 2017 law prevents them from arresting people for disorderly conduct. It also prevents arrests for misdemeanor shoplifting unless the suspect has a prior conviction within the past year.

More than a year ago, a Gazette opinion called on legislators to fix those unintended consequences of the 2017 law. HB421, sponsored by Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, is the remedy; it now sits on Gov. Steve Bullock's desk, where its fate is uncertain.

We don't see HB421 as a partisan bill, but it passed the House and Senate with solid Republican support and none from Democrats. We call on Bullock to consider this a nonpartisan crime prevention bill.

Here's the problem with the current law on disorderly conduct, illustrated by an incident that Billings Police Chief Rich St. John described last year: Police were called to a downtown bar where witnesses pointed out a man they said started a physical fight with another man. The suspect was extremely intoxicated. Officers took witness statements and issued him a notice to appear in Municipal Court on a charge of disorderly conduct, but they could not arrest him under the 2017 law.

As the suspect walked away, police saw him stumble in the middle of Broadway where a vehicle hit him and he challenged the driver to a fight. Only then could the officers book him because he was clearly a danger to himself and the public.

It would have been better for police to have had the ability to arrest that man before he stumbled into the street.

Regarding shoplifting, Montana retailers report that thieves are gaming the new law, stealing up to $1,500 in merchandise, knowing they cannot be jailed and that the maximum fine is $500. Emboldened thieves have escaped stores through emergency exits and loaded stolen goods into waiting vehicles, Brad Griffin, president of the Montana Retail Association told legislators in hearings this session. Some Billings stores have reported losing $10,000 to $20,000 per week to shoplifters, he said.

Since possible penalties for shoplifting were reduced two years ago, more people are failing to appear on that charge in Billings Municipal Court, a deputy city attorney told The Gazette in April.

HB421 would add back the potential for arrest and jail to misdemeanor theft in which the suspect uses an emergency exit. 

HB421 would restore law officers' discretion to arrest suspects for disorderly conduct, so they can be removed from a situation that officers believe is likely to escalate to violence or otherwise endanger people.

HB421 won't result in large numbers of misdemeanor suspects going to jail — because most Montana jails are full all the time with felony offenders. But it will provide a tool to deter or prosecute those who plan emergency exit "push out" heists. It will hold people accountable for shoplifting and disorderly conduct.

The comprehensive justice reforms of 2017 need tweaking. Bullock should see that HB421 becomes law.

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