Tag Archives: Dick Sears

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

Lawmakers look to protect online privacy of job applicants

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington

That mortifying Facebook photo you were tagged in last week? May not be such a deal-breaker after all.

Vermont lawmakers want to shield the social media profiles of job applicants from the prying eyes of their would-be employers.

For the second year in a row, Sen. Dick Sears is pushing a legislation that would make it illegal for employers to request from job seekers their passwords to Facebook, Twitter and other social network accounts.

Sears said he’s unaware of any instances of Vermiont employers demanding access to applicants’ online profiles as a condition of employment. He said reports of the trend nationally, however, merit some proactive steps in the Green Mountains.

“It’s sort of like saying, when you come in for your interview, bring your diary with you, and we’re goig to read your diary,” Sears said Tuesday. “Something was amiss here.”

Vermont isn’t the first jurisdiction to tackle the issue of undue invasions of online privacy by human-resources personnel hunting for skeletons in online closets. Continue reading

Baruth withdraws proposed assault weapons ban, but gun-control debate lives on

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff  Photo                           Tim Griswold of Rutland wraps himself in a flag during a rally in support of gun rights at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Saturday afternoon.

Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Tim Griswold of Rutland wraps himself in a flag during a rally in support of gun rights at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Saturday afternoon.

Reported first by Green Mountain Daily’s Ed Garcia and confirmed first by Paul Heintz at Seven Days, Sen. Philip Baruth says he’ll withdraw a proposed ban on assault weapons.

Baruth’s proposal fueled a groundswell of opposition that erupted Saturday in Montpelier, when about 250 Vermonters rallied on the steps of the Statehouse in support of the Second Amendment. In a statement provided to Heintz, Baruth said “it is painfully clear to me now that little support exists in the Vermont Statehouse for this sort of bill.”

“It’s equally clear that focusing the debate on the banning of a certain class of weapons may already be overshadowing measures with greater consensus, like tightening background checks, stopping the exchange of guns for drugs, and closing gun show loopholes,” Baruth said.

Elected last month to serve as majority leader of the 23-member Senate Democratic caucus, Baruth also said “I owe it to my caucus to remove an issue that seems increasingly likely to complicate our shared agenda this biennium.”

Baruth’s decision to withdraw S32, however, won’t table the gun-control issue in Montpelier this year. Over in the House, Reps. Linda Waite-Simpson, an Essex Junction Democrat, and Adam Greshin, a Warren Independent, are dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on a piece of legislation that will, most controversially, seek to ban ammunition clips containing more than 10 rounds.

Continue reading

Bills dealing with campaign finance, privacy rights, land use hit House, Senate calendars

The first of what should be a spate of campaign-finance reform bills hit the Senate calendar last week. Introduced by Sen. Tim Ashe, S.17 aims to improve an elections database that currently makes it difficult and time-consuming to figure out who gave what to whom.

The legislation would require candidates for office to submit their lists of campaign contributions and expenditures in electronic form, and stipulates that the secretary of state must maintain those submissions in a searchable online database.

Another Senate bill responds to privacy concerns raised by the growing use of “automated license plate recognition systems” by law enforcement. The Vermont chapter of the ACLU sounded the alarm last year about the ways in which this technology can be used to track the movements of residents against whom police hold no evidence of wrongdoing.

The bill, S.18, calls for study to establish limitations on the use, dissemination and retention of information gained through the license detection systems.

Sen. Dick Sears has a bill that would increase the statute of limitations for a number of crimes, including sexual offenses against a minor. For the crimes of sexual assault on a minor, lewd and lascivious conduct and sexual exploitation of a minor, Sears’ proposed legislation would allow prosecutors to file charges anytime before the alleged victim turns 40. Under current law, the window to file charges closes when the victim turns 25.

Sears’ bill removes the statute of limitations altogether for sexual assault, human trafficking, murder, arson causing death and kidnapping.

Over in the House, a wide-ranging land-use proposal that generated some headlines before the opening of the session has been introduced in bill form. Rep Tony Klein says H9 would serve as companion legislation to Act 250, establishing a statewide planning process separate from the regulatory framework. The bill would direct the Natural Resources Board to prepare a statewide plan, replete with maps delineating lands suitable for things energy projects, housing or commercial activity.

Klein says deciding in advance what types of development belong where will streamline the regulatory process for developers while giving residents more say over development in their communities.

Rep. Ann Mook has introduced legislation that would require health insurers to pay for hearing aids; her bill also would require the Green Mountain Care Board “to consider” including hearing aids in any single-payer benefits plan plan Vermont adopts in the future.

Reps. Ann Donohue and Patty Lewis, Republicans from Northfield and Berlin, respectively, want to exempt from state income taxes the first $5,000 of military retirement pay. The legislation would benefit only residents making less than $50,000 per year.

Senator wants sway over Public Service Board, and more from the first bills of 2013

Forget about broad-based taxes, death with dignity, marijuana decriminalization and probitions on mountaintop wind: the first House bill of the new biennium aims to simplify judicial bookkeeping.

In a sure sign that the new session is nearly upon us, legislative staff have unveiled the texts of bills that are ready for introduction.

H1 is a gripping bit of statute that would repeal a provision requiring superior court clerks to “keep a book of judgments separate from the originals.”

Like most of the 1,000 or so bills introduced in a given biennium, H1 won’t generate much talk outside the committee to which it’s assigned. But in addition to the mundane work of legal bookkeeping, lawmakers will consider scores of bills this year that could have a real impact on the lives of the Vermonters they represent.

Take H6, introduced by Rep. Paul Poirier, the Barre City Independent who late last month dropped his insurgent candidacy for Speaker of the House. Poirier’s legislation would add “mental injury” to the list of job-related afflictions for which employees are entitled to workers’ compensation.

In the Senate’s first piece of new legislation, Sen. Tim Ashe, a Chittenden County Democrat/Progressive, wants to require judges “to consider the approximate financial cost” of a sentence before handing down a ruling.

It won’t the first go-round in Montpelier for many of the bills under consideration in 2013. Already on the calendar in the Senate is a bill relating to concussions in youth sports. Lawmakers failed to reach consensus on a proposal last year; S.4, introduced by Ashe, Sen. Dick Sears and Senate President John Campbell, would, among other things, prohibit a coach from letting a child reenter a game after suffering a concussion.

Sen. Robert Hartwell, a Bennington Democrat and vocal critic of the Public Service Board, promises to spark a lively debate with his first piece of legislation of the biennium. Hartwell, an opponent of ridgeline wind development and wireless “smart meters,” want to give the Senate more influence over the composition of the three-person panel responsible for regulating those technologies.

Hartwell’s S16 would require the governor’s appointments to the Public Service Board to first win consent from the Senate.

You can scroll through the first 24 bills of the session yourself at

http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/serviceMain.cfm, and expect to see many more added in the coming days.

CVPS customers aren’t the only ones lawmakers are trying to get checks for

As procrastinating Vermonters rushed to meet IRS filing deadlines Tuesday, lawmakers mulled a plan that would give a whole new meaning to the term “tax refund.”

The Senate Committee on Appropriations is considering an unconventional approach to property-tax relief that could see checks for $30 or more sent to nearly 176,000 residential homeowners next year.

Under the terms of a still-developing provision in the annual budget bill, lawmakers would use 50 percent of any general-fund revenue surpluses in fiscal year 2013 to fund the giveback.

“If you want to take the grandchildren to McDonald’s, you can do that. If you want to use it to pay off some of your tax bill, then you can do that,” said Sen. Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat who sits on the appropriations committee. “The point is that it’sVermont taxpayers who paid the extra taxes, and so it’sVermont taxpayers that ought to get the money back.”

The Legislature has been abuzz this session with talk of whether rebate checks should be issued toVermont households. For once, however, the conversation has nothing to do with the proposed merger of Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power.

Check out the full story here: http://bit.ly/J9OawL

Final stand today for Death with Dignity

Reporters are counting down the minutes as the Senate readies for a floor session this afternoon in which lawmakers are expected to take up – wait for it – a bill that would prohibit minors from using tanning beds.

It isn’t the underlying bill of course that’s attracting so much attention, but the death-with-dignity amendment attached to it by the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare earlier this week.

The controversial legislation doesn’t stand much of a chance. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, whose constitutional duties including serving as grand overseer of the Vermont Senate, will rule the amendment not germane to the tanning bill, and strip it from consideration.

In an open letter to Scott shipped to media outlets earlier this morning, the chairman of the Patient Choices Vermont – the state’s leading right-to-die advocacy group – urges the Republican to reconsider his ruling:

“In questions like this, that have been well discussed and bottled up for many, many years, and where opinions have crystallized, we would respectfully ask you to consider allowing the entire Senate to fully debate and vote – as opposed to yourself or 2 or 3 Senators (on either side of the issue) being the issue’s final arbiter.”

Don’t expect any shocking turnabouts though.

Peter Shumlin, who has long championed death with dignity, said yesterday that much as he supports the legislation, it would be inappropriate to tack it onto the tanning bill.

Though the Senate should be allowed to cast what he calls a “vote of conscience,” “I also believe it should be done in a way that meets the Senate rules,” Shumlin said. “I used all the very persuasive powers I had with Sen. Campbell, Sears and others to put it to a vote in the Senate. We lost that battle, but I don’t think putting the bill on a non-germane bill is going to get us a vote.”

Marijuana reform alive – kind of

Marijuana reform advocates have focused almost exclusively this year on the decriminalization bill stalled indefinitely in the Statehouse. But legislation that would increase four-fold the amount of cannabis Vermonters can sell without risking a felony conviction looks to have a far more promising path ahead.

Tucked into a Senate bill that would create a database for search warrants is a package of sentencing reforms that would, among other things, raise the threshold at which the sale of marijuana becomes a felony.

Currently, anyone caught selling a half-ounce or more is subject to a prison term of up to five years. The proposed legislation would increase that weight to two ounces, and relegate anything less than that to misdemeanor status.

“The guy selling that amount of marijuana isn’t guy I think we want to put in jail on felony charges,” Sears said Wednesday. “These aren’t the drug traffickers we want to be focusing on, so it makes sense I think to align our laws with our priorities from a criminal justice perspective.”

House Speaker Shap Smith has drawn sharp criticism this year from marijuana reform advocates for his opposition to the higher-profile decriminalization bill languishing in theMontpelier. But for Smith’s opposition, the bill, which has the support of both the Senate and Gov. Peter Shumlin, would face far rosier prospects for passage.

He seems to have fewer concerns, however, about tweaking the weight that triggers a felony for sale of marijuana.

“I still need to learn more about the proposal, but it sounds reasonable,” Smith said.

The legislation also changes some quirky laws, including one enacted in the mid-1800s that exposes people who serve alcohol to “habitual drinkers,” in their own homes no less, to felony charges.

Sears said the statute was originally intended to prevent enterprising Vermonters from transforming their living rooms into saloons.

The legislation additionally repeals a law that prohibits anyone from possessing more than a two-day supply of prescription drugs. Though it’s rarely, if ever, enforced, Sears said the law brands as criminals seniors who keep a seven-day supply in those little multi-chambered orange pillboxes.

Check out the full story on the bill in tomorrow’s Times Argus and Rutland Herald.

Controversial campaign topic could be big issue this session

Remember all that campaign hooplah over Peter Shumlin’s alleged proposal to release child pornographers and drug dealers from prison? Brian Dubie’s vicious opposition to the governor-elect’s plan to reduce corrections costs, it appears, hasn’t scared Senate democrats away from the issue.
Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says he expects “judicial reinvestment” to be a central issue in the coming session. The term is legislative-speak for the same kind of proposal Shumlin outlined last summer – drive down soaring corrections costs by keeping nonviolent offenders out of prison.
“Obviously this was a big issue in the campaign, and we need to start moving forward now with some reasonable alternatives,” Sears said today.
It’s sure to be a controversial topic. The mayors of Barre, Rutland, St. Albans and several other Vermont cities say their communities are already overflowing with habitual low-level offenders. Keeping them out of jail, the municipal officials say, hurts quality of life and drives up public-safety costs locally.
But Sears says efforts to reduce the prison population will be less about freeing offenders from jail than about preventing them from committing crimes in the first place. If investments in human-service programs locally can cut into the 50-percent recidivism rate for nonviolent offenders, Sears says, it will reduce crime rates in Vermont communities and lower corrections costs.
Also on the plate for Sears’ committee this year: ramping up sanctions against DUI and attempting-to-elude; and figuring out how to proceed with the implementation of a 2009 law that aimed to include the addresses of offenders on the Internet sex-offender registry.

-Peter Hirschfeld