Category Archives: Courts & Judiciary

Shumlin signs new law aimed at sex offenders

MONTPELIER – Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law on Wednesday legislation that enhances reporting requirements for sex offenders when they are released from prison.

The new law, introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, requires sex offenders to report to the Department of Public Safety Sex Offender Registry before they are released from prison. Offenders previously had up to three days after their release to report information about their intended residence. The Department of Corrections could not compel an offender to provide such information before release.

The law also requires sex offenders to report to the Sex Offender Registry within 24 hours of being released from probation, parole, furlough or a supervised community sentence.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.16 in to law.

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.16 in to law.

“This is common sense legislation that will make our communities and state a safer place for everyone,” Shumlin said. “I want to thank Rep. Grad and Sen. [Dick] Sears [D-Bennington] as well as the House and Senate Judiciary Committees for their hard work on this legislation.”

Grad said the law will ease concerns for communities and victims when sex offenders are released.

“This law makes offenders accountable and provides communities with vital information about where an offender intends to live prior to his or her release,” Grad said. “This change from the three days given for notification is significant. Those can be three very long days for a victim and her community.”

The law took effect immediately and applies to offenders currently sentenced for qualifying crimes and those sentenced after enactment.

Consideration of child protection law delayed a day

MONTPELIER — Legislation aimed at boosting the state’s child protection laws was pulled from the Senate floor Tuesday to allow senators more time to understand the bill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, requested the one-day delay in order answer persistent questions from constituents about the bill’s contents. It’s undergone several changes since the Legislature reconvened in early January.

A special legislative panel, the Committee on Child Protection, was formed last year after the deaths of 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon, of Poultney, in February 2014, and 15-month-old Peighton Geraw, of Winooski, in April 2014. Both were ruled homicides, and murder charges have been filed against family members.

The panel spent the summer and fall holding hearings and ultimately drafted S.9, a comprehensive bill to address issues in Vermont that were identified after hearing from dozens of witnesses. The legislation has been changed throughout the course of the legislative session to address concerns with the original proposal.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

But those changes have not been made clear to the public, or have been misconstrued, Sears, who serves as co-chairman of the special legislative panel, said at a caucus Tuesday. He said he pulled the bill Tuesday to address those questions at the caucus. The bill is now expected to be up for preliminary approval on Wednesday.

“Somehow, in this building, frequently, things are misconstrued,” he told fellow lawmakers.

At issue is the creation of a felony crime that carries a 10-year prison term. The “failure to protect” proposal would make it a felony if a parent or caregiver failed to protect a child. Sears said it would enhance a similar misdemeanor crime already on the books in Vermont.

The new law would apply to people if a person “knows or reasonably should have known” that a child was in danger of suffering death, serious bodily injury or sexual abuse. People could be held criminally liable if they fail to take action to prevent such danger or if their failure to act was a cause of harm to child.

The proposed felony law was included at the behest of Attorney General William Sorrell.

“A lot of testimony, particularly from the attorney general in the summer and fall, focused on Vermont’s lack of a law called failure to protect. Twenty-nine other states have failure to protect statutes,” Sears said. “As introduced, admittedly, the section of failure to protect a child was very broad. The new crime would only apply to a carefully limited range of conduct.”

Sears said Tuesday that his committee has “substantially narrowed the scope of the crime and added affirmative defenses.” The law is modeled after one in place in Hawaii, and the affirmative defenses against the law were added to help prevent abuse of the law.

The legislation originally included references to illness and pain in the section pertaining to the proposed felony. That language caused blowback from a range of people, included those who thought it might create criminal liability for parents who opt to skip vaccinations for their children under existing exemptions in Vermont law.

Sears said the legislation now provides for situations where a parent or caregiver “makes a reasonable decision not to provide medical care or treatment.”

“That’s an affirmative defense. Some want a specific statement against vaccinations in there that the failure to vaccinate would not result in a conviction,” he said.

Sears said the language included in the bill protects the rights of parents who do not want to vaccinate their children.

“Could a state’s attorney charge somebody? I suppose anything is possible, but pretty highly unlikely,” he said. “It’s certainly not the intent here to have somebody who fails to vaccinate their child and then gets measles to be charged with a felony.”

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and co-chairwoman of the Committee on Child Protection, said her committee recommended removing the references to illness and pain after receiving messages from constituents concerned that the bill would take away their rights.

Sen. Claire Ayer

Sen. Claire Ayer

“People saw the word illness and thought that they would be liable if they didn’t vaccinate their kids. We took out the word two or three weeks ago. They’re just late getting their emails out, I guess,” Ayer said. “We also took out the word pain because people want to be able to use corporal punishment on their children. So, we took that out as a standard.”

Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, vice chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which also reviewed the bill, said the legislation represents a first step in improving the state’s child protection laws. Additional work will be needed, she said.

“This bill does not accomplish everything and I think that as you hear from constituents and as you begin to understand what is in the bill and what it does do, that it is not a comprehensive response to everything that does need to be done,” Lyons said.

The final version of the Senate bill also stripped out language that could have led to felony charges for exposing a child to the possession, manufacturing, sale or cultivation of drugs. New language was added calling for a 30-year prison sentence and up to a $1.5 million fine if a child is present where methamphetamine is being made.

Included in the legislation is language that would shift the emphasis in child protection cases away from reunification of a child with a family to one that focuses instead on the best interests of the child. The Department of Children and Families came under fire after the deaths of Sheldon and Geraw for over-emphasizing reunification.

Sears said he expects the legislation to receive widespread support in the Senate before it heads to the House for that chamber’s consideration.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Marijuana bill revealed but not expected to move this year

MONTPELIER — Legislation to legalize marijuana in Vermont was unveiled at the State House Tuesday, but a key lawmaker said it will not be taken up this year.

Chittenden County Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive and Democrat, has drafted a bill that would allow Vermont residents 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana, two mature plants, seven immature plants and any additional marijuana produced by the plants. Growing would only be allowed indoors.

Under the legislation, nonresidents could possess one-quarter of an ounce of marijuana. Criminal penalties would remain in place for anyone possessing more than the amount allowed under. Penalties would also remain in place for anyone possessing marijuana that is under the age of 21.

Edible marijuana products would be allowed, but those products would not be allowed to appeal to people under the age of 21. It would also prohibit edible marijuana products from mimicking similar products that do not contain marijuana.

Sen. David Zuckerman

Sen. David Zuckerman

The bill has been anticipated for some time following a RAND study released last month that showed the state could reap significant revenue if it legalizes marijuana.

A delegation, including Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, recently traveled to Colorado to learn about that state’s legalization efforts. Upon returning, however, Flynn noted that officials in Colorado believed the state moved too quickly to legalize. They were forced by a ballot initiative. In Vermont, some hope to legalize the drug through legislation.

Any significant progress this year was ruled out Tuesday by Sen. Dick Sears, the Bennington County Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would need to make its way through his committee, but Sears said Tuesday that he will not take it up this year.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

Zuckerman’s bill would create the Board of Marijuana Control within the Department of Public Safety to adopt rules governing the cultivation and sale of pot. It would also be responsible for administering a registration program for places that sell the drug. Zuckerman has proposed that the board consist of five members appointed by the governor, and that a director be hired to oversee operations.

The board would also create the regulatory structure for cultivation, production, testing and sale of marijuana.

Only nonprofit dispensaries or benefit corporations would be allowed to register with the board as a cultivator, product manufacturer, testing laboratory retailer or lounge, under the legislation. Registration of such groups would begin no later than Sept. 15, 2016.

The legalization of marijuana, under the legislation, would provide revenue to the state through a series of excise taxes and fees. Zuckerman proposed a $2,000 application fee for marijuana establishments and an annual registration fee ranging from $1,000 to $50,000. Those fees would be used to implement, administer and enforce the new law.

An excise tax of $40 per ounce would be charged for marijuana flowers. A $15 per ounce excise tax would be levied on any other marijuana, and $25 for each immature marijuana plant sold by a cultivator.

The bill earmarks 40 percent of the revenue raised through the excise taxes for public education about the risks of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana consumption, and for criminal justice programs and substance abuse treatment. Also funded by the taxes would be law enforcement and academic and medical research on marijuana.

The remaining revenue would go to the state’s general fund.

The bill includes several other provisions, including:

— Maintain criminal penalties for driving under the influence of marijuana
— Smoking marijuana in public would remain prohibited
— Smoking marijuana within 1,000 feet of a public or private school or regulated child care facility would be prohibited
— Allows municipalities to prohibit or regulate marijuana establishments
— Allows landlords and innkeepers to prohibit cultivation on their property

Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he favors legalization, but believes Vermont must learn more from the efforts in Colorado and Washington before acting. His office reiterated that sentiment Tuesday after Zuckerman’s bill was revealed.

“The governor’s bias is towards legalization but he wants to learn from the experiences of Washington state and Colorado. This is ultimately a conversation that the Legislature and Vermonters will have to have, and the governor is pleased that the conversation is underway,” spokesman Scott Coriell said.

Read the proposed legislation below:

Labor costs, guns and organs: Capitol Beat, Feb. 16, 2015

Play

Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman chat about the showdown between the Shumlin administration and the Vermont State Employee’s Association over labor costs, the state of gun legislation in the State House and a bill that would make organ donation the default option in Vermont. Also, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas talks about a few stories he’s worked on in the past couple of weeks, including a profile of Rep. Janet Ancel and Sen. Tim Ashe, the lawmakers that chair the taxing committees in the State House. He also updates on a potential second bid for governor by Republican Scott Milne. Lots going on in this episode — have a listen.

Check out recent episodes of City Room with Steve Pappas, which are discussed in today’s podcast episode:

Scott Milne episode

Paul Costello and Ted Brady episode

Vermont delegation heads to Colorado for pot fact-finding

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Senior Vermont law enforcement officials and others are planning a fact-finding trip to Colorado next week to look at that state’s experience with marijuana legalization.

Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, Chitttenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan and pro- and anti-legalization advocates will be among those traveling to the Rocky Mountains.

“Colorado was the first state to legalize marijuana, and we want to see the impacts of that law.” Flynn said Friday. “Legalization is being discussed in Vermont and we believe that an on the ground look at how it has been implemented will give us a unique insight into the issue. It is important to learn as much as we can about the regulation, the effects on communities, and any other information that will provide policymakers with as much information as possible when considering decision points around this issue.”

The nine-member delegation, which also will include the Rutland County sheriff, Bennington’s police chief and an assistant U.S. attorney, plans to meet with a range of people in Colorado to talk about that state’s experience with legalization.

The list includes law enforcement officials, members of the Colorado governor’s staff, school personnel and the U.S. attorney in Denver. They’ll also tour a marijuana growing operation and a store selling marijuana products.

Sorrell outlines state’s GMO case for lawmakers

MONTPELIER — Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell told the Senate Agriculture Committee Wednesday that he expects a judge to rule on dueling motions in the GMO labeling case within the next three months, which will help lay out a path for the rest of the case.

A host of food industry groups filed suit last year against the state’s GMO labeling law, set to take effect July 1, 2016, claiming it is unconstitutional. Sorrell briefed the committee Wednesday on the status of the case.

The plaintiffs have asked the judge for a summary judgment, claiming the state is restricting their free speech rights by forcing them to label products that contain GMOs. They also claim the state cannot prevent them from calling a product natural if it contains GMOs.

The state has filed a motion for dismissal of the lawsuit. Oral arguments have already been heard, and Sorrell said the state “attacked each count of the plaintiffs’ complaint.”

In some cases, restricting the right to speech can be unconstitutional, according to Sorrell.

“In first amendment free speech arena, there’s the freedom to speak or the freedom to remain silent. So, restricting speech can be a violation of free speech rights,” Sorrell said.

Attorney General William Sorrell testifies before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

Attorney General William Sorrell testifies before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

Under the state’s GMO labeling law, the state is compelling food manufacturers to state whether or not food products have GMO ingredients. “They’re objecting, saying, ‘You are forcing us to speak on labels and we don’t want to,’” Sorrell said.

In this case, Sorrell said the state has argued that it is not unconstitutional, and courts have found such compelled speech to be constitutional in similar cases.

“On the compelled speech issue we suggest that there are legitimate governmental concerns about environmental issues and public health issues as it relates to genetically engineered products, and legitimate governmental interest to accommodate religious considerations for a segment of the population,” he said.

The state’s motion to dismiss cited a case from an appeals court in Washington, D.C., one step below the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the appeals court ruled that meat must be labeled with the country of origin. The court applied a lenient standard for the government to overcome, according to Sorrell.

“We suggest in our argument that this is very much akin to the country of origin required disclosure on meat products that we’re talking about here,” he said. “We should win on the compelled speech piece.”

And, unlike products that contain alcohol or tobacco and require health warnings, the required labeling requires facts to be disclosed, much like nutrition labels.

“Unlike those kinds of warnings, what our statute requires are simply factual assertions without sort of the taint or flavor, if you will, of saying, ‘Caution, these are hazardous to your health,’” Sorrell said. “These are akin to the … kinds of closures that you typically see on products for calories, fat content, salt and sugar and the like. The standard to which we should be held shouldn’t be a higher standard because it is just a factual assertion as opposed to a warning.”

Sorrell said he is also confident in the state’s argument for prohibiting the use of the term “natural” for GMO products.

“There is no first amendment right to make either false or misleading statements,” he said.

The state’s case points to a posting on the website of Monsanto, a biotechnology company that is part of the suit against the state, that describes GMOs as “plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.”

“We say, ‘Listen, there’s no way you can say that this is natural,” Sorrell said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, indicated he believes that posting will harm the plaintiffs’ case.

“They kind of shot themselves in the foot with that post,” Starr said.

The suit also claims an undue burden on interstate commerce. Sorrell told the committee that the law provided more than two years notice to food manufacturers of the pending labeling requirement.

“The state was very accommodating there,” he said.

And GMO labeling is already required in more than 60 countries and two other states, Connecticut and Maine, have passed labeling requirements, but those have yet to take effect.

“This is not Vermont as some island in the world that’s requiring labeling,” Sorrell said.

U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss is expected to issue a ruling on the initial motions within the next several months, according to Sorrell. That will inform both sides how the rest of the case will proceed, he said.

“I think we’re hoping to be on a track where whatever evidentiary proceeding we’re going to need to do will be done some time by late fall. Hopefully, a decision at the trial court [will happen], if not within this calendar year, then very early into the next calendar year,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Video: Hearing on S.9, protecting children from abuse

Shumlin says no rush to legalize pot, won’t partake if Vermont acts

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin said Tuesday he has no plans to partake in legal marijuana if the state moves to allow it.

“No,” Shumlin said, when asked during a news conference by Seven Days reporter Terri Hallenbeck if he would smoke legal weed. “Been there, done that.”

Shumlin appeared caught off guard when asked when he last smoked marijuana.

“Oh my God,” he said. It was a while ago. I’m old.”

Shumlin then clarified that he last smoked pot in his late 20s, but gave it up as his responsibilities grew.

“My guess is that a lot of Vermonters of my generation feel like I do about marijuana, which is, it is something that we smoked when we were young,” he said. I found that as I got into my 20s and took on more responsibility, it didn’t have the same desirable effect on me and I stopped smoking it because as I took on more responsibility, or I don’t know what in my late 20s, I just found that it wasn’t much fun anymore.”

“My staff’s going to kill me for this,” he added, glancing at Chief of Staff Liz Miller and spokesman Scott Coriell.

The RAND corp. recently released a report estimating that Vermont could net between $20 million and $75 million annually by legalizing marijuana. The higher end of potential revenue would be possible of surrounding states did not follow suit and out-of-state residents came to Vermont to purchase it.

Shumlin said he is in no rush to beat surrounding states simply for additional revenue.

“I don’t think we should be driven by tax revenue. I think we should be driven by doing the right thing for Vermonters in a way that is better than the current system, which forces an illegal market that isn’t regulated, that isn’t controlled, that anyone can have access to, including kids,” he said. “Kids will tell you that it’s easier to get pot … than it is alcohol. That suggests that the regulatory market works.”

Shumlin said he spoke with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday about the issue. Colorado has legalized marijuana through a ballot initiative and Shumlin said Vermont should take its time and learn from both Colorado and the state of Washington before acting.

“I really think that we can learn a lot from the states that have gone first on this and are learning what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “I’ll continue to evolve and learn from their experiences. I think the report gives us a good road map of choices that we could make should we move to legalization.”

One lesson already learned, Shumlin said, is that Vermont should avoid allowing edible products made with marijuana.

“Edibles are a real challenge for states. I would love to see Vermont avoid those problems if we were to go ahead,” he said.

Shumlin pardons three women

MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin issued pardons to three women Friday, saying the women have atoned for their mistakes.

According to the governor’s office, Aimee Sheehan, of Williston, Amber Thibault, of Charlotte, and Lori Morse, of Bennington, have been pardoned for various convictions.

Sheehan pleaded guilty to violating a restraining order involving her grandmother in 2001 when she was 18 years old. She currently works as a nurse but has been limited in her career because of the conviction. Sheehan’s grandmother supported the pardon application, according to the governor’s office.

Thibault pleaded guilty to a domestic assault on her mother in 2002, which took place “during a period of transition in Amber’s life following the death her father.” Thibault has pursued a career as a nurse but has been held back as a result of her conviction, the governor’s office said. Thibault and her mother have repaired their relationship and her mother supported her pardon.

Finally, Morse pleaded guilty to a number of non-violent felonies and misdemeanors related to substance abuse and addiction during her 30s in the late 1990s. The convictions included passing bad checks, possession of cocaine and forgery, the governor’s office said. Since her convictions, Morse completed substance abuse treatment, including the Tapestry Program in Brattleboro. She also received a bachelor’s degree from Union Institute in Brattleboro and has written a memoir about overcoming abuse and substance abuse.

Shumlin said Friday he decided to pardon all three women because of the progress they have made since their convictions.

“I was proud to pardon three women today who have all worked very hard to overcome obstacles in their lives and mistakes made in their pasts,” Shumlin said. “All three have shown a commitment to helping others and to making a better life for themselves and their family. Past mistakes do not define a person’s future, and I hope these three will serve as an inspiration for others looking to turn their lives around.”

Those seeking pardons must file an application. The Department of Corrections reviews the applications and conducts an investigation before they are forwarded to the governor.

Browning files public records request bill

MONTPELIER — A lawmaker who sued Gov. Peter Shumlin for documents related to his now-shelved single payer health care proposal has introduced legislation that would require the documents to be revealed in the future in similar situations.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, plans to introduce a bill to require greater access to public records under certain conditions and require judicial rulings on appeals of denials of access within a certain period of time. Browning said the legislation is needed based on her own legal case against the governor.

Browning, though she lost her case in superior court, maintains the administration inappropriately used executive privilege to prevent the release of information prior to his announcement on Dec. 17 that he was no longer pursuing a universal, publicly financed health care system because of its cost.

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Rep. Cynthia Browning

“My understanding is that executive privilege is intended to serve the public by ensuring that government officials can have thorough and confidential discussions of policy alternatives. It is not intended to protect those officials from inconvenience or embarrassment. If a person
claims to believe in the principles of transparency and accountability they must uphold them when it is hard as well as when it is easy,” Browning said in a release Friday. “I think that in this case executive privilege was used to conceal the politically difficult facts related to how much the single payer plan might cost and how much taxes might have to increase to
finance it. Ironically, this concealment did not serve the Governor well politically with either supporters or skeptics of the plan.”

Browning’s bill contains several provisions, including:

— If reports or documents have been shared by executive branch staff with people who are not part of that branch or working for it outside of the presence of the governor, executive privilege would be waived.

— If an official or public agency is required by law to produce a report on a date certain and it is not produced it and the law is not amended to extend the date, any records related to that report cannot be covered by executive privilege.

— If a public records request is denied by the government a Vermonter can appeal that denial to Superior Court. The current statute requires that such an appeal receive a judicial ruling “expeditiously,” and that such dockets should be handled before other cases, but the word
“expeditious” is not given a time definition. The bill would define “expeditious” as 45 calendar days after the last brief filed by the complainant.

Browning said the Shumlin administration shared documents and reports with some legislators, including House Speaker Shap Smith when the governor was not present and still claimed executive privilege. She argues that executive privilege should not be extended to a separate branch of government.

Shumlin, according to Act 48, was originally supposed to release a financing plan for his health care plan in January 2013 but did not. Browning said the Legislature did nothing to enforce that deadline and the administration was allowed to withhold information. Browning filed a public records request to the administration in March 2014 seeking documents and reports. The Legislature did not act to extend the governor’s deadline in law until May 2014, she said.

Browning said Vermonters should be able to obtain materials when a report is overdue, even when the Legislature does not try to enforce the law.

The 45-day timeline for judicial rulings is needed to speed up the process of records request, Browning said. She filed her case on Sept. 4, 2014, but the judge did not issue a ruling until Dec. 10 — a span of 14 weeks. Browning said the length “does not meet a common sense definition of expeditious.”

Read the proposed legislation below:

Family of Vermont hazing, suicide victim backs hazing bill

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The family of a 17-year old Milton football player who killed himself after being a victim of hazing and sexual assault on the team is pushing for tougher reporting requirements for school officials.

Jordan Preavy’s parents and stepmother traveled to Montpelier on Thursday, more than two years after his death, to watch as the bill was introduced by Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton.

Preavy was one of the victims in a hazing scandal that authorities said involved victims being sexually assaulted with a broomstick. The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify sexual assault victims, but Preavy’s parents have spoken about him openly.

His family says school officials weren’t quick enough to report the abuse to law enforcement officials. The bill introduced Thursday would make such notification more automatic.

Pot study finds $50 million in potential revenue

MONTPELIER — A study on marijuana legalization in Vermont released Friday has found that the state could net as much as $50 million in new revenue by taxing and regulating the drug, but it would come with some consequences and other expenses.

The report, called for in legislation signed into law last year, was completed by Rand Corp. and obtained by the Vermont Press Bureau Thursday. The study found that legalizing marijuana in Vermont could produce revenue ranging from $35 million to $50 million annually, based on myriad policy choices.

The calculation is based on tax models in Colorado and Washington, where marijuana is legal. In those states, assessments capture about 30 to 40 percent of the cost of marijuana and deposits it in state coffers. Continue reading

Gun bill set for State House showdown

MONTPELIER — More than 100 gun control advocates packed a State House room Wednesday in support of pending legislation that would expand criminal background checks to gun shows and online gun sales in Vermont.

The legislation is in the process of being drafted and will be co-sponsored by Sens. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, John Campbell, D-Windsor, and Claire Ayer, D-Addison — all members of Senate leadership. Gun Sense Vermont, a gun control advocacy group, held a press conference Wednesday to highlight the legislation and encourage lawmakers to support it.

“In Vermont our laws are leftover from an age gone by, from before there was Internet, before there was an interstate. And because of that, a dangerous loophole exists that allows criminals, domestic abusers and the seriously mentally ill to buy guns with no questions asked,” said Gun Sense cofounder Ann Braden. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that we are allowing domestic abusers and felons easy access to weapons.”

At issue for Gun Sense is what they consider a loophole in the state’s gun laws that only require criminal background checks for gun buyers when they purchase from a federally licensed dealer. Buying a gun at a gun show or online requires no such background check.

“Criminals know about these loopholes. It’s up to us to close them so they can’t keep slipping through,” Braden said.

Passing any gun control laws has been difficult, both in Vermont and Washington. In Vermont, Baruth introduced a bill two years ago that would have banned assault weapons and high-capacity gun magazines.

But it failed spectacularly. Baruth withdrew the legislation just five days after introduction because it lacked support from his colleagues and riled gun rights activists, including Gun Owners of Vermont, a pro-gun organization that is “committed to a no-compromise position on firearms ownership rights,” according to its website.

This bill is entirely different, according to Baruth.

“I think of this as a very narrow, targeted, moderate bill. It’s a very restrained approach to the problem,” he said. “A lot of times gun rights people say, ‘Let’s strengthen the laws we have.’ That’s the way I look at this, it strengthens the law we have.”

Gun Sense supporters filled the Cedar Creek room inside the State House Wednesday for a press conference on expanding background checks for gun purchases.

Gun Sense supporters filled the Cedar Creek room inside the State House Wednesday for a press conference on expanding background checks for gun purchases.

Braden and other Gun Sense supporters said closing loopholes is necessary to protect women and children in abusive situations. She said in the 16 states that have passed similar legislation there are 38 percent fewer women who are shot to death by an intimate partner. Non-firearm homicides rates remained the same, she said.

“Guns are for hunting and sport, they are not for intimidating and killing women and children,” Braden said. “It is simple to close this loophole and it is effective.”

The group plans to pressure lawmakers into action. It delivered over 1,000 letters from Vermonters and more than 12,000 signatures to the governor’s office Wednesday. Braden also touted widespread support for expanding background checks, including:

— 81 percent of likely Vermont voters
— 77 percent of Vermont gun owners
— 68 percent of Republicans
— 93 percent of Democrats
— 79 percent of independents

“Vermonters are counting on our lawmakers here in Montpelier to stand with the vast majority of us who support closing this dangerous loophole,” she said.

Campbell said he believes lawmakers will be able to advance the bill this session.

“I think the difficult place is going to be in the Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said. “I think that we have a good shot.”

Part of the legislation, which Campbell said he hopes will be introduced by the end of the week, would ensure that people found to be incompetent by a judge would be prevented from purchasing guns at a gun show or online. Campbell, who also works as a prosecutor, said that component is as important as preventing criminals and abusers from obtaining guns.

“I’m not sure I can understand what the objection is to saying, ‘We don’t want somebody who’s been declared mentally incompetent by a court from actually possessing a firearm,’” Campbell said.

The bill will not target responsible hunters and sportsmen, he said.

“We have a tremendous number of men and women in the state who own guns, who are responsible gun owners, and I think they have an absolute right to. I own several guns myself,” Campbell said.

The bill’s first test is likely to come in the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, says he is skeptical.

“There are parts of the bill I like and parts of the bill I don’t like,” he said.

Sears said he is supportive of the mental health component, which would allow reporting to federal databases of those with serious mental illness. But expanding background checks may not be appropriate in Vermont, he said.

“We’ll certainly take testimony on background checks,” he said. “I have serious questions about whether background checks will solve any problems in Vermont.”

Baruth said he is confident the legislation will receive fair consideration in the committee, but is likely to see changes before it will pass the Senate.

“I have great respect for their judgment. I have no doubt when they get the bill they’ll give it a fair hearing and if it’s something they think makes sense and can live with, they’ll vote it out of committee,” Baruth said. “I can’t think of a bill that has remained in its original form when the governor signed in, so, yes, in order to get out of the Senate it will no doubt wind up in a different form and then the House will work its will, in turn.”

Should the bill reach the House, Speaker Shap Smith said it will also get fair consideration.

“I think that we’ve got to figure out the problem that we’re trying to solve and then figure out the correct way to solve it. That’s what I’ll want the committee to do,” he said.

Smith said lawmakers will take a close look at how the bill will help in Vermont.

“There are some statistics out there that are troubling, particular around domestic violence. I think that we need to take a look at the statistics and the incidents of violence and domestic violence and then we’ve got to identify the ways that we can most effectively address them,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Proposed law would expand DNA collection

MONTPELIER — A pair of senators are looking to pass legislation that would require the collection of DNA samples from people convicted of misdemeanor crimes that carry prison terms after the Vermont Supreme Court found a previous law unconstitutional.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, released the bill, S.10, this week, but it has not yet been introduced. The legislation would even require DNA samples from defendants who strike a plea deal for a lesser crime that does not carry a prison term if there was probably cause found for the original charge that qualified for DNA collection.

Sen. Dick Sears

Sen. Dick Sears

Sears said the state previously passed a law that required DNA collection from defendants charged with felonies and some misdemeanor crimes that are considered violent. The bill mimicked a Maryland law that was found constitutional by that state’s Supreme Court.

But the Vermont Supreme Court struck down part of the law here that required DNA samples from defendants in violent misdemeanor cases, even after probable cause was found by a judge. Sears said his new legislation will address that.

Under the legislation, DNA samples would be required “whenever there is jail time associated and you’ve been convicted of that crime,” according to Sears.

“So obviously traffic tickets, even possession of marijuana, small amounts, would not come under it,” he said.

Sears said he agreed with the minority on the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court allowed fingerprinting of defendants but ruled against DNA collection.

“They’re basically saying finger prints are OK, but DNA isn’t. Quite frankly, DNA helps to eliminate suspects as much as it helps to convict people of crimes,” he said. “Making the case that finger prints are less obtrusive than a cotton swab of DNA, is where I was coming down on this.”

The legislation greatly expands the number of crimes that would require submitting a DNA sample by including all misdemeanors that carry prison terms, not just violent misdemeanors and felonies. Sears said he believes expanding the law is appropriate.

“I’m comfortable with that expansion given the fact that you would have to provide finger prints anyway,” he said.

Newly appointed House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, said she Tuesday she had not yet reviewed the bill and declined to comment.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna dies

MONTPELIER — Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna, a frequent legal commentator for Vermont media outlets, died unexpectedly Monday, according to the school.

Hanna, 48, was an expert in constitutional law, the United States Supreme Court, and women and the law. She received a bachelor’s degree from Kalamazoo College in 1988 and a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1992. Her work has been published in leading journals, including the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, and Michigan Journal of Gender and the Law.

Hanna made frequent appearances on Vermont Public Radio and WCAX-TV, and provided comments and analysis for newspapers around the state.

“It is with the most profound sorrow that we announce the untimely death of our dear colleague Professor Cheryl Hanna,” the school said in a statement Monday. “Professor Hanna was a beloved teacher and role model to many within and beyond the Vermont Law School community. It is with heartache that we share this loss. She will be deeply missed by our faculty, staff, students, and alumni.”

Cheryl Hanna

Cheryl Hanna

Maryellen Apelquist, director of media relations for Vermont Law School said there would be no further comment from the school.

Hanna is survived by her husband and two children. A memorial service will be held at a later date and details will be announced when plans are finalized.

According to the school’s statement, Hanna consulted on constitutional cases and represented public interest organizations through the filing of amicus briefs in cases before state and federal courts.

“This included the amicus brief she and Vermont Law School students wrote on behalf of the Vermont Commission on Women in Dreves v. Hudson, the first case implicating Vermont’s Equal Pay Act. The book she co-authored, Domestic Violence and the Law: Theory and Practice, was the leading casebook on violence against women,” the statement reads.

According to her biography on the school’s website, Hanna previously served on the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and as an assistant state’s attorney in Baltimore before joining the Vermont Law School faculty in 1994. She had also been a visiting professor at the University of California-Hastings College of the Law and at Seattle University School of Law.