BOISE — Idaho would end mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes under one of three bills introduced Monday in the state Legislature that would bring other sweeping changes to drug laws.
Another would make changes to civil asset forfeitures, narrowing the scope of when certain property can be seized when connected to drug cases and adding some additional protections for property owners. The third would allow heroin dealers to be charged with second-degree murder if a customer overdoses and dies.
Monday was the deadline to introduce bills in all but a few “privileged” committees, and the House Judiciary and Rules Committee had a full agenda as a result, voting to introduce 10 new bills and rejecting an 11th, to regulate bail enforcement agents.
Boise Democrat Ilana Rubel and Nampa Republican Christy Perry’s proposal to get rid of mandatory minimums provoked the most debate. Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, said he views changing the law as giving judges the flexibility to decide whether they are dealing with notorious Mexican drug kingpin “el Chapo” or a teenager who made a mistake.
“I don’t see this as weakening our stance on drugs,” he said. “I see this as recognizing there are human beings who make some really stupid choices.”
Idaho has mandatory minimum sentences ranging from one to 15 years in prison for crimes involving marijuana, cocaine, meth and heroin.
Rubel and Perry’s bill would leave the current maximum sentences — which can be life for some of these drugs — in place, but would get rid of the mandatory minimums. Judges could still impose the current minimums in cases where they think they are appropriate, Rubel said, but they could also take the circumstances into account and impose lesser sentences in cases where they think a less harsh sentence is justified.
“We are spending over $7 million a year currently incarcerating people under these nonviolent mandatory minimum sentences,” she said.
Aside from drugs, Rubel said, the only other crimes in Idaho with mandatory minimum sentences are murder, repeated sexual molestation of a child and causing grievous bodily injury when driving under the influence. She said the current laws haven’t had much deterrent effect, saying drug crime has increased greatly since the state adopted them in 1992.
Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, was the only lawmaker to vote against introducing the bill. He said he believes there is a deterrent value in the laws and that drug users aren’t the ones being targeted with them.
“These are true criminals that we are going after with these statutes,” he said.
Civil asset forfeiture allows police to take cash, cars, guns and other items used in the furtherance of drug crimes. Law enforcement says the practice is a valuable tool in going after drug traffickers and criminal organizations by taking away their resources to commit more crimes, but critics say the laws have been overused and the standards for seizure are too broad with not enough protections. Rubel and Rep. Steve Harris, R-Meridian are sponsoring the bill.
“In their enthusiasm, some of these laws crossed the line of due process and created perverse incentives for law enforcement,” Harris said.
While Harris said there haven’t been reports of the same kind of abuses in Idaho as elsewhere, Idaho’s forfeiture law has many of the same flaws as in states that have had such problems.
Their bill would allow seizure of a vehicle only if it is connected to drug trafficking, not for simple possession.
The bill would also allow property that is found near a controlled substance to be seized only if it is connected to the crime in a meaningful way. If the bill passes, for example, possessing U.S. currency would not be grounds for a seizure or forfeiture; police would have to get a judge’s approval to keep property, among other changes.
“We’ve worked with law enforcement and prosecutors, and I think we have a good compromise here before us,” Harris said.
Reps. John Gannon, D-Boise, and James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian are sponsoring the heroin bill, modeled on one in Minnesota, which is one of a number of states where heroin dealers can be charged with murder if a customer dies.
“I think we ought to print this (bill) because it brings attention to the epidemic of heroin,” Holtzclaw said. “It’s terrible. Absolutely terrible. It’s a growing problem, and it needs our attention.”
The committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill, although some lawmakers worried the language was too broad and could end up catching up people who are addicts themselves rather than the dealers Gannon and Holtzclaw said they are trying to target. Gannon said the bill is precise enough as it is worded now.
“I think it’s pretty well understood what a sale is, as opposed to sharing or a situation where someone’s being furnished heroin,” he said.