A group of North Carolina legislators introduced a bill Tuesday that would enshrine certain rights for crime victims into the state Constitution, a proposal borne out of a national effort started a decade ago by a California tech industry mogul whose sister was murdered.
The North Carolina proposal, House Bill 551, a local version of “Marsy’s Law,” already has sowed questions and concerns among prosecutors, victim rights advocates, defense attorneys and others who work in the court system.
The bill, which has seven primary sponsors, including Rep. Nelson Dollar and Sen. Tamara Barringer, both Republicans from Wake County, calls for amending the state Constitution, which requires voter approval. Under the proposal, the question of whether to amend the N.C. Constitution would be put to voters in November 2018 during the general election. To put a referendum before the voters, though, both General Assembly chambers would have to adopt House Bill 551 with 60 percent of the vote.
The bill gives crime victims the right to be notified about all court proceedings related to their case and to be present at them. It provides them the right to prevent disclosure of records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim's family and would allow victims to opt out of providing information to prosecutors or defense attorneys.
Under the proposal, victims also would have the right to receive “full and timely” restitution from defendants.
“Simply put, victims in North Carolina deserve the respect and dignity to have at least the same rights as those who are accused and convicted of a crime,” Dollar said in a prepared statement. “Our current language leaves gaps that unfortunately can mean an inconsistent process from county to county leaving victims and their families behind. This legislation will give victims a much-needed voice in the justice process, that is enforceable and consistent statewide.”
North Carolina already has a Crime Victims’ Rights Act that was adopted in 1998.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Tuesday that the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys learned about the effort to push a Marsy’s Law in North Carolina several months ago. The organization has discussed the proposal on more than one occasion but has yet to voice support for it.
“One question has been: ‘What is the driving force behind this,’” Freeman said.
Freeman said North Carolina already has a structure in place to help crime victims, but the financial resources have not been adequate in recent years to meet their needs. If Marsy’s law is adopted, she said, she worries that it could be an unfunded or inadequately funded mandate.
“The real concern is there are not enough resources,” Freeman said.
Marsy’s Law was first enacted in California in 2008. It was backed by Broadcom Corp. co-founder Henry Nicholas, whose sister Marsy was stalked and murdered by her boyfriend in 1983. A week after her murder, Nicholas and his mother were confronted by his sister’s killer while they were in the grocery store. Unbeknownst to the family, he had been released from jail on bail while awaiting trial.
In the nine years since the California law was passed, other states have followed suit. Nicholas has spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising campaigns in different states. Illinois passed the law in 2012. North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana adopted measures in 2016. And efforts are underway for constitutional amendments in Kentucky, Georgia and Nevada.
In the states that have approved the constitutional changes, and in states considering them, many of the same concerns have been echoed.
Among them have been the broad definition of victim and victim notification and the added costs and additional burdens on law enforcement officers to send out more notifications. The law also could leave prosecutors and law enforcement officers more vulnerable to civil cases against them if victims are dissatisfied with how they were treated.
In addition, if victims can refuse to be interviewed and deposed as part of the court process, some contend that a defendant could be robbed of the Sixth Amendment right to confront a witness.