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TN general assembly enacts new anti-crime laws

Fiscal Year 2019-20 is now officially underway and several new anti-crime bills are in effect. Major legislation passed by the General Assembly this year includes the reforming of Tennessee’s death penalty appeals process.

The Sergeant Daniel Baker Act, sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon), expedites capital crime cases straight to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The legislation is named for a Dickson County Sheriff’s officer who was brutally murdered during a traffic stop.

The new law eliminates an intermediate step to the Court of Criminal Appeals. This new legislation places Tennessee in line with the vast majority of states who believe that direct appeal to the State Supreme Court is a fair and just process in capital crime cases. The new law also follows language placed in the Tennessee Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights Amendment, ratified by the people to the State Constitution in 1998.

“The Tennessee Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights Amendment gives crime victims a constitutional right to a speedy trial and a prompt and final conclusion of the case after conviction or sentence,” said senator John Stevens. “However, no action has been taken to put this constitutional mandate into action. This legislation shortens the time victims and their families are forced to relive the horrors that have taken place by streamlining the process straight to the Supreme Court where the final decision rests, anyway.”

The mid-level appeal was put into place under a 1967 law. However, all appeals must go to the Tennessee Supreme Court for a mandatory review and final judgement. Death row inmates can also file appeals in federal court, meaning it can currently take several decades before the appeals process is complete.

Capital punishment in Tennessee is reserved for the most heinous, atrocious or cruel acts of murder.

Other anti-crime bills that are now in effect are:

• Legislation sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston). This new law strengthens Tennessee’s death penalty legislation as it affects offenders who knowingly sell or distribute the most dangerous drugs, including fentanyl, with the intent and premeditation to commit murder;

• A truth in sentencing law, sponsored by Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), ensuring that Class A, B, or C violent felons are required to serve the minimum sentence for their crimes before being eligible for reduction credits for good behavior. This law presumes that Class E or D nonviolent felons will be released on parole when they reach their eligibility date unless good cause is shown for why the inmate should not be released;

• The JuJuan Latham Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) strengthening penalties against those convicted of harming a minor during a drive-by shooting. This piece of legislation was named for a 12-year-old Knoxville boy who was killed in a drive-by shooting while in the back of his father’s parked car;

• A new law, sponsored by Sen. Shane Reeves (R-Murfreesboro), removing the statute of limitations for second degree murder;

• Leigh Ann’s Law, sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), creating a Class A misdemeanor for a person who is arrested on domestic violence charges to knowingly violate a no contact order issued prior to the defendant’s release on bond. This piece of legislation is named for a Tennessee woman murdered 17 years ago by her former boyfriend who violated an order;

• A new statute, sponsored by Sen. Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), strengthening penalties for offenders who try to coerce victims of domestic violence in judicial proceedings;

• Legislation, sponsored by Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), raising the minimum penalty for a violation of an order of protection;

• A new law, sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston), making it a crime for a parent or legal guardian to withdraw or change a child’s school enrollment, with the intent to hinder a child abuse investigation.