Today, the House will vote on Senate Bill 94. While the bill as originally filed provided guidelines for witness identification in criminal matters, it was changed substantially by the House Judiciary Committee, which substituted the language of House Bill 430 before sending the measure to the floor. Substituting or merging the contents of one bill with another is not unusual, especially after Crossover Day. And, unlike a bill substitute made late in the day on Sine Die, no one is arguing the substitute language is a way to sneak in legislation without notice.
Yet the bill is one of several that some believe overly extends the power of police officers in Georgia. Is that the case?
HB 430 / SB 94 is referred to informally as the “Search and Seizure Bill.” Sponsored by Dacula Representative Chuck Efstration, who is a former Assistant District Attorney in Gwinnett County, the 33 page bill is an attempt to revise and modernize this code section for the first time in just under 50 years. And because so much has changed in terms of technology and court decisions, there is a lot of ground to cover. Even the explanation of what the bill does takes up three pages in the House Daily Report.
Changes in technology drive some of the changes in the bill. For example, thermal imaging can be used by law enforcement to identify criminal activity, yet a 2012 court decision determined the practice was illegal under current Georgia law. SB 94 fixes that. Another technology, body cameras worn by police, has been proposed as a remedy to police overreach, especially in the aftermath of events in Ferguson, Missouri. SB 94 codifies their use in search and seizure, making it legal to use a body camera when executing a warrant in a non-public place. Other new technology, including GPS devices is also addressed in the bill.
The bill is one of three this session that have drawn the attention of some legal activists. The first, House Bill 56 by Kevin Tanner, was an attempt to regulate the use of no-knock warrants. The bill didn’t make it out of committee after these activists complained the use of no-knocks would be legalized for the first time, despite their use having been approved by previous court decisions.
House Bill 310
Senator Michael Williams shows an org chart he created to witness Garland Favorito at Monday’s meeting of the Senate Public Safety Committee.
would consolidate several departments related to the criminal justice system, including probation, parole and child welfare enforcement into a new Department of Community Supervision. In a Monday hearing before the Senate Public Safety Committee, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Alan Powell, claimed the bill simply unplugged and replugged existing code sections to form the new agency.
Yet witness Garland Favorito attempted to explain how the measure would lead to a political police state because the combined agency would report to the governor. This, despite Senator Michael Williams of Cumming drawing an organizational chart showing how the agencies being combined already report to the governor. The bill received a Do Pass recommendation, and will be sent to the Senate Rules Committee to be scheduled for floor debate.
No one expects legislation to go unvetted before it becomes law. And, most bills involving civil and non-civil law go before a subcommittee members having legal experience in order to be properly examined. Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter, who has been advocating for the passage of the bills, wants to limit government intrusion, and wants to make sure that what law enforcement does is properly documented in order to protect the interests of both citizens and law enforcement. Those who oppose the three bills seem to want the same thing. One must wonder why they can’t agree with each other.