Jim Jones: Legislative issues worth consideration in the 2020 session
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Jim Jones: Legislative issues worth consideration in the 2020 session

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The 2020 legislative session has produced a number of proposals worthy of support, including bills relating to wrongful conviction, tenant protection, and medical debt collection. I’m hoping legislators will see the value in these measures.

House Bill 384 was introduced by Representative Doug Ricks to compensate persons imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. The bill was prompted by the 20-year incarceration of Chris Tapp, who was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls in 1998. Tapp was cleared of the crime, thanks in large part to the work of Greg Hampikian, executive director of the Idaho Innocence Project.

The bill would also apply to Charles Fain, who spent 18 years on Idaho’s death row after being convicted for the 1982 murder of a young girl in Canyon County. Hairs found at the scene of the crime, which the FBI examined and proclaimed to be Fain’s, were the strongest evidence against him. As Attorney General, I personally argued against Fain’s appeals, relying on the FBI evidence.

Years later, when it became possible to do DNA testing on small particles, Dr. Hampikian and Fain’s attorney, the late Fred Hoopes of Idaho Falls, established that the hairs were not Fain’s. He was exonerated of the crime.

In April 2015, the FBI made the stunning admission that much of the hair-comparison analysis its lab had performed back in the 1980s was skewed in favor of prosecutors. Fain was convicted on faulty evidence and should be compensated. H 384 has adequate safeguards to ensure compensation does not go to the wrong people and should be approved.

House Bill 462, proposed by Representative Melissa Wintrow, addresses two serious problems often encountered by renters. Some unscrupulous landlords or property managers keep security deposits or sue former renters for damages, based on bogus cleaning or premises damage claims. I helped one family avoid a bogus claim of almost $5,000 from a property management company and the practice is not uncommon.

The best defense for renters is to give them the right to a walk-through inspection with the landlord before moving in and upon leaving the property. That limits the chance of renters having to pay unfounded charges. H 462 provides the walk-through protection and also requires an itemized statement of charges claimed against the renter on moving out. This legislation will protect renters from having to either pay bogus damage claims or risk injury to their credit rating for refusing to pay.

House Bill 425, introduced by Representative Jason Monks, would place limitations upon abusive practices employed by some medical debt collectors. When I was on the Supreme Court, we dealt with several cases that demonstrated the need for legislative action. Some cases gave the appearance of being more about collecting attorney fees on the medical indebtedness than trying to collect the debt itself.

H 425 places limitations on the amount of attorney fees that can be recovered in court proceedings to collect on medical bills. It is fair to ask why medical debt collection should be treated differently than collection of other debts. A reasonable answer is that we incur medical expenses out of necessity. If we get sick or have an accident, there is not much choice but to get treatment. Abusive and expensive collection proceedings only add to the financial burden.

The bill also requires that a healthcare facility inform patients about health care providers who participated in the patient’s care but will bill separately. Such surprise bills are not uncommon in the healthcare industry nowadays. Anesthesiologists, radiologists, and other specialists are often independent contractors who charge the patient separately.

There may be some tweaking necessary for H 425, but it deserves serious consideration by legislators.

Jones is an Eden native and former Idaho Attorney General and former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice. His previous opinion work can be found at JJCommontater.com.

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