Politics & Government

Crime victims would get new rights under plan that could go to NC voters

In this May 30, 2015, file photo, Henry T. Nicholas III talks during the Nicholas Academic Center's 2015 Graduation ceremony at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif. After his sister was murdered, Nichols III spent millions to enshrine a so-called bill of rights for crime victims into California's constitution.
In this May 30, 2015, file photo, Henry T. Nicholas III talks during the Nicholas Academic Center's 2015 Graduation ceremony at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif. After his sister was murdered, Nichols III spent millions to enshrine a so-called bill of rights for crime victims into California's constitution. Eric Reed

The state Senate is moving forward with a proposed constitutional amendment that would add more protections and rights for crime victims in the legal process.

The amendment would go before voters in November and would give crime victims the right to receive notice of court proceedings, the right to be present at any proceeding and to be heard at some stages of the legal process, and to "reasonably confer" with the prosecutor in the case.

Marsy's Law passed the House in April 2017 in a 98-17 vote, and it was parked in the Senate Rules Committee until a new version of the bill emerged Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Senate's version makes a number of tweaks to the amendment proposal that passed the House, including making it clear that the rights apply to crimes that are equivalent to felony property crimes.

The state constitution already includes a list of victims' rights, but Marsy's Law would be more expansive. Sen. Tamara Barringer, a Cary Republican and presenter of the bill in the Senate, said the measure is "about the dignity and respect of victims."

A national organization is pushing for the amendment in multiple states; Marsy's Law is named for Marsy Nicholas, who was murdered in California in 1983. Shortly after the crime, Nicholas' family encountered the accused murderer in the grocery store after he'd been released from jail with no notice to the family.

The amendment prompted concerns from some senators and officials from the judicial system.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, questioned if the added notification requirements could slow down the legal process and add costs.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said some court processes "potentially can be problematic" under the provisions. "Giving them a right to be present does potentially open up the opportunity where we would have to wait or provide scheduling around what a victim's availability would be," she said, adding that "a lot of this is stuff that we're already doing."

LaToya Powell of the Administrative Office of the Courts said the amendment could have "unintended consequences" for the confidential nature of juvenile court proceedings. She says Marsy's Law could result in victims receiving sensitive information about juvenile cases "without any restriction on how they may use it or publicly disclose it."

A report from the Administrative Office of the Courts, reported by N.C. Policy Watch, pegs the cost of the measure at $30.5 million per year for additional prosecutors.

Barringer said many of the concerns were considered in developing the bill, and bill sponsors looked to avoid any problems experienced in states that already passed Marsy's Law.

Jeff Kaye, a lobbyist for the national Marsy's Law organization, sought to reassure the Senate committee.

"This is about giving victims a voice, not a veto in the process," he said. "The criminal justice process is going to run as smoothly as it has before."

The Judiciary Committee didn't take a vote Thursday and plans to take up the bill again on Monday afternoon.

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