State News
May 31, 2017

2017 Legislative bills highlighted

By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger

S.22—”An act relating to eliminating penalties for possession of limited amounts of marijuana by adults 21 years of age and older”

The final proposal for marijuana legalization, S.22, would legalize adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and allow people to grow up to two mature and four immature plants at home, effective in July 2018. It also set up a commission charged with drafting a bill to create a tax-and-regulate market system. However, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the bill Wednesday, May 24, but left the door open to a compromise if legislators are willing to make changes. Meanwhile, a separate bill to expand the medical marijuana system sailed through the Legislature with little opposition. The bill adds to the list of medical conditions that qualify for the registry and increases the number of dispensaries.

S.134—”An act relating to court diversion
and pretrial services”

The same three sponsors of the marijuana legalization bill also introduced a measure to reclassify penalties for possession of drugs, including heroin and cocaine. The bill downgrades possession of small amounts of the substances from felony-level charges to misdemeanors. Proponents argued changing the penalties could make it easier for addicts to recover. Felony convictions make it more challenging for people to find employment, secure housing, access student loans and more. After taking testimony, the House Judiciary Committee revised the bill to call for a study by legislative counsel of drug penalties for low-level possession. Ultimately, the study passed as part of a separate measure.

H.503—”An act relating to to criminal justice”

The Legislature also passed a bill that creates a new crime of distributing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 50 times more potent than heroin. The substance is often laced into other drugs so users are unaware they are consuming fentanyl, and has been linked to an increasing number of overdoses in Vermont and across the country. The House initially was reluctant to adopt the Senate’s proposal, wary of creating new drug penalties. However, the proposal received backing from law enforcement officers and prominent Burlington officials. The bill will create new crimes for trafficking and distributing fentanyl, with penalties ranging up to 30 years in prison and fines of $1 million.

S.79—”An act relating to freedom from compulsory collection of personal information”

Executive orders President Donald Trump signed early in his administration prompted a rare tri-partisan moment of unity. In early February the governor, flanked by Vermont politicians of all political stripes, promised a state-level response. The result was S.79, a bill that made efforts to address two potential aspects of the Trump presidency.

First, the bill requires gubernatorial approval before any law enforcement agency in the state enters a particular type of agreement with the federal government under which local or state police are deputized to enforce federal civil immigration law.

Second, the legislation also took aim at Trump’s campaign pledge to create a national registry of Muslims. It prohibits Vermont agencies from sharing information with the federal government for the purpose of creating a registry based on religion or other personal information.

Many across the political spectrum heralded the bill as a rebuff to federal overreach without going too far down the path toward making Vermont a so-called sanctuary state. But civil and migrant rights groups said it was a missed opportunity to enact legislation with more impact.

H.422—”An act relating to removal of firearms from a person arrested or cited for domestic assault”

Early in the session, the House moved forward with a bill that would give police powers to confiscate firearms from scenes of domestic violence and hold them for up to five days. Advocates said the legislation, H.422, would get guns out of homes at times that tend to be most deadly for domestic violence victims. But opponents said the bill infringed on constitutional rights to due process and to bear arms. The measure passed the House, but got a chilly reception in the Senate.

H.74—”An act relating to domestic and sexual violence”

Bill H.74, which Scott has signed, eliminates the statute of limitations on sexual assault. Previously, it was six years. It also extends the statute of limitations from six years to 40 on sexual exploitation of children. The legislation also creates a sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights, which guarantees access to services and creates a new misdemeanor sex crime.

H.325—”An act relating to prohibiting bestiality”

In this bill, lawmakers criminalized bestiality. Until now, Vermont was one of eight states without such a statute.

H.171—”An act relating to expungement”

Lawmakers also tried to mitigate the impact a criminal conviction could have on people later in their lives. The House spearheaded H.171, a measure that reduced the amount of time people have to wait in order to be eligible to ask the court to wipe certain eligible offenses from their records. The bill shortens the time period for most eligible offenses from 10 years to five. For more serious crimes, the period is shortened from 20 years to 10 years.

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