Bill Watch

Bill Update: Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted, Independent Autopsies, and Gun Control

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

As California’s 2018 legislative session has been starting to gain momentum in February and March, a handful of noteworthy criminal justice bills have emerged.

One bipartisan bill, SB 1094, would expand eligibility for people wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit to receive compensation. In California, those wrongfully imprisoned are entitled to $140 per day for the time they were incarcerated, but California’s Victim Compensation Board finds very few wrongfully convicted people to be eligible for compensation.

The bill by Senators Joel Anderson (R-Alpine) and Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would extend eligibility to people whose convictions are vacated after new evidence emerges because either the prosecutors have dropped the charges, or because they have been acquitted after a second trial, both categories that were excluded before.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board has called on state legislators to pass SB 1094. “California can and must do better by those we’ve wronged,” the Chron’s editorial board writes.

According to their editorial, California’s Victim Compensation Board has approved 30 out of 93 compensation applications since 2001. This bill would mean that 23 more applications would be eligible to receive reimbursement for their time lost to imprisonment.

Reducing Interference With Autopsies

SB 1303 by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) would only allow autopsies to be conducted by licensed physicians and surgeons. Currently, non-medically trained elected officials can—and often do—oversee, and reportedly interfere with, autopsies.

Last December, two medical examiners, including renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, resigned from their posts, saying that the San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore—who also serves as the county’s coroner—pressured them to reclassify homicides as accidents when officers were involved in the deaths, and acted in other ways that undermined death investigations in order to protect officers.

Omalu’s high-profile resignation from the position of chief forensic pathologist brought up questions about an officer-involved death that Moore ruled an accident. In 2008, a CHP officer tried to pull over a man who was speeding on his motorcycle. The man, Daniel Lee Humphreys, tried to flee, crashed, and attempted to climb over a divider, at which point the officer shocked him with a Taser. Moore reportedly withheld evidence that the officer shocked Humphreys 31 times before the man died. The forensic pathologist, who conducted the autopsy, was reportedly told that Humphreys was only shocked twice, and the death was ruled an accident.

“We must do all we can as a society to safeguard the public interest and protect the integrity of death investigation and independence of physicians in providing best practices and best standards of practice to the good people of our wonderful state,” Dr. Omalu said. “There should never be a perceived or real suspicion by anyone in our community that the opinions provided by a physician regarding causes and manners of death, especially in the court of law, are biased or have been influenced by any interested party including district attorneys, defense attorneys, sheriffs, police officers or family members.

Citing the mess in San Joaquin, the Washington Post’s Radley Balko—whose new book explores “junk forensic science” in the criminal justice system—argued that the outdated coroner system, which has a sordid history, and still allows elected officials to overrule board-certified forensic pathologists in death investigations, should be abolished.

“I have introduced SB 1303 because autopsy reports provide critical information in determining the cause and manner of death and we must have the confidence in their accuracy,” said Dr. Pan, a pediatrician and Senator representing the Sacramento region. “The public and juries need to trust that they will receive accurate and objective information to make the correct verdict on a criminal case.”

Strengthening Gun Restrictions

In response to the February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, eight democratic lawmakers authored a package of gun reform bills. CA Assemblymembers Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher (D-San Diego), and Blanca Rubio (D-Baldwin Park), Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), David Chiu (D-San Francisco), Evan Low (D-Cupertino), and Mike Gipson (D-Carson), announced the bills in late February.

“Thoughts and prayers without more, are not enough,” said Assm. Rob Bonta. “Action is required. It’s not time to wait and see, and then run out the clock and do nothing, as has happened so many times before. It’s time to act.”

Ting’s bill would expand a current state law, the Gun Violence Restraining Order Act, which gives family members and law enforcement the ability to petition a court to temporarily restrict individuals—who are displaying certain warning signs that they may harm themselves or others—from possessing firearms. The bill would allow for campus staff, employers, co-workers, and mental health professionals to seek such restraining orders.

A related bill from Assm. Rubio, AB 2526, would speed up the process for emergent situations by allowing judges to verbally initiate temporary emergency restraining orders.

Assm. Rubio authored a second bill, AB 3129 prohibits people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes from owning firearms.

Assm. Gonzalez Fletcher introduced a second bill that would block voluntary gun buyback programs from giving out gift cards for retailers that sell guns or ammo.

Bonta’s bill AB 1927 will allow people who are experiencing suicidal ideations to submit their names to the state’s background check system to restrict their ability to purchase a gun.

“We know suicide can be an impulsive decision that most survivors regret,” Bonta said. “Guns are lethal and, unfortunately, rarely allow for second chances. Driven by research showing a correlation between gun purchases and suicidal actions, this bill gives people the power to create a potentially life-saving barrier.”

A bill from Assm. Quirk, AB 2222 would require law enforcement agencies to report information on guns used in crimes to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Automated Firearms System within 3 days of recovering a firearm.

“The lack of comprehensive data entry regarding firearm recovery leaves dangerous gaps in public safety,” Quirk said. “Adequate gun tracing policies allow for law enforcement to recognize patterns and take appropriate action in the interest of public safety.”

Image: California Assm. Phil Ting, fellow lawmakers, announce gun control bill package.

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