News

In session’s final hours, teacher background check bill advancing in N.C. General Assembly

sb867-Backgroundcheck-331x219With the N.C. General Assembly winding down its short session, lawmakers are hoping to speed though the final bills on their agenda Friday, one of which sets a new statewide background check standard for teacher licensure.

Friday morning, the House Finance Committee gave its approval for Senate Bill 867, setting the stage for its likely passage in the final hours of the session.

The bill would create one statewide standard for fingerprint background checks, requiring that all teachers seeking licensure by the N.C. State Board of Education submit to the checks. It will also require fingerprint checks for all new charter school employees.

It’s a bill that’s gained mostly bipartisan support after a USA Today feature in February dished out an “F” grade for North Carolina’s teacher background check system.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Franklin, Wake, said the legislation will install a “comprehensive” background checks system for North Carolina.

The State Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor’s office, will have the final say in licensure.

But the bill has prompted concerns from some that it could be used to stifle educator protests. The criminal citations flagged in the bill include civil disobedience crimes such as “refusal to disperse,” a charge handed down to a number of legislative protesters, including teachers, in recent years.

Comments during Friday’s committee meeting seemed aimed at assuaging those concerns, particularly from Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat.

Meyer pointed out that the crimes listed in the bill are already included in the state’s background check statutes for teachers, and that, should the State Board of Education choose to reject a teacher’s licensure based on their history, it will require a written explanation by the state board.

Meyer said teachers should contact their legislators if they are denied teaching licenses because of their protests.

“I don’t think that’s a good reason to oppose this bill at this time,” added Meyer.

However, critics have noted, the legislation that seems bound for approval on the legislative floor does not require the same checks for private schools, despite documented concerns about that exemption.

Meanwhile, committee lawmakers rejected a request Friday morning from Rep. Jay Adams, a Republican from Catawba County, who moved to amend the bill to include mental health records in the teacher background checks. Legislative staff and other lawmakers noted Adams’ amendment could clash with the medical record privacy protections provided in federal HIPAA law. 

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Commentary

California passes common sense gun safety package; NC should follow its lead

There’s great news from the Golden State this morning. The Los Angeles Times explains:

“Spurred by outrage over recent mass shootings, California lawmakers on Thursday sent Gov. Jerry Brown an unprecedented package of gun control bills, including a ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines, background checks for those buying ammunition and new restrictions on homemade firearms.

In the wake of massacres in San Bernardino and Orlando, Fla., the flurry of legislative action once again puts California in the lead among states regulating firearms, and in stark contrast to inaction in the gridlocked Congress, officials said….

Among the most notable bills the Senate sent the governor was a measure from De León that would require ammunition buyers to show an ID and have their name checked against a list of felons and others prohibited from having firearms….

California already has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, including a ban on assault rifles, but lawmakers said the new bills were meant to plug loopholes exploited by gun manufacturers and owners.

Two of the bills approved by the Legislature ban the sale of semiautomatic rifles with detachable ammunition magazines, including those with “bullet buttons” that when pressed with a sharp object allow the quick removal and replacement of magazines. Those who already own such guns would have to register them with the state as assault weapons.

‘These types of firearms have no legitimate use for sport hunters or competitive shooters,’ Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said. ‘Members, too many of our sons and daughters, too many of our brothers and sisters, too many of our mothers and fathers have fallen victim to gun violence in California. We cannot afford to delay action any longer. The time to act is now.’”

While the ink is not dry on the matter — civil libertarians have raised concerns about some provisions and Gov. Brown has not yet pledged to sign all the measures — the legislative package is a wonderfully encouraging sign and stands in stark contrast to the irresponsible lack of action from North Carolina’s current political leadership. Let’s hope that, as it has with so many other issues, California’s leadership on this matter helps launch a wave that quickly spreads east.

Commentary

Editorial calls on McCrory to veto police body camera bill

A day after correctly describing the supposed “compromise” on HB2 an embarrassing joke, the Greensboro News & Record gets it exactly right this morning with a lead editorial decrying the bill passed by lawmakers this week to keep police body camera recordings secret.

“Citing vague and flimsy concerns about ‘privacy,’ state lawmakers overwhelmingly have passed a bill that makes public access to police body and dash camera video all but impossible without the blessing of a sheriff or police chief.

The bill, whose primary sponsors include High Point Republican John Faircloth, effectively places all of the power to release or withhold the footage in the hands of law enforcement. Supporters advertise House Bill 972 as a way to provide public access and transparency, but that’s a hollow and deceptive come-on. And they know it.

How awful is this bill? Where to begin?

It rolls back current policies that help create public access. For instance, this means that if this bill becomes law, the decision whether to release sealed body-camera footage of a deputy’s fatal shooting of an unarmed man, 38-year-old Todd Burroughs of Stoneville, would rest solely with Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page — in whom the community’s trust already is low.

It means a new Greensboro ordinance governing the release of police video, which in itself does not go far enough, would be rendered moot by an even worse state law.

It rescinds a city council’s ability to order the release of a video in the interest of maintaining public confidence — as current state law allows.”

After explaining why the bill conflicts with recent actions by the Greensboro City Council that were at least somewhat promising, the editorial concludes this way:

“Finally, while HB 972 supposedly allows people who are depicted in videos to request to see the footage, it adds exceptions so ridiculously broad that they grant police chiefs and sheriffs wide discretion to say no:

  • If the footage could jeopardize an individual’s safety.
  • If it could hurt someone’s reputation.
  • If it is part of an ongoing investigation or could pose “a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice.”

This could close the door to virtually anyone seeing the recordings. While the bill does allow anyone who is denied access to the footage to appeal to a judge, what would be the point? The legal loopholes are so gaping you could sail an oil tanker through them.

This was not the spirit with which cities like Greensboro adopted the police camera technology. This was supposed to be about building trust and accountability, but this bill would do anything but that.

At least its title is honest: ‘Law Enforcement Recordings/No Public Record.’

The governor should veto this cynical affront to the public good.”

News

NBA, Hornets reject current HB2 compromise bill

Legislative leaders hoping a compromise version of House Bill 2 might be enough to save the the 2017 NBA All-Star Game got their answer Thursday:

No.

In a joint statement on Twitter, the NBA and the Charlotte Hornets made it clear that while they were continuing to talk to all sides about HB2, the legislative proposal being shopped in the final days of the short session did not go far enough to prevent LGBT discrimination.

Here’s their official statement:

It’s estimated the 2017 All-Star Weekend could have an economic impact of up to $100 million on the Queen City, according to the Charlotte Observer.

For more on the proposed HB2 ‘fix’ read today’s Fitzsimon File.

Click here to read one version of the amended version of HB2, obtained by WBTV in Charlotte on Wednesday.

Commentary

National report highlights troubling career of recently deceased NC prosecutor

Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation has a great post up today on the blog of the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (cross-posted below) highlighting a new report about the late Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County.

NC “deadliest prosecutor” valued winning over justice, new report shows

By Kristin Collins

Joe Freeman Britt in his heyday

Joe Freeman Britt in his heyday

When Joe Freeman Britt died in April, his local newspaper lauded him as a hero. The paper remembered Britt as a towering ex-prosecutor who won at least 38 death sentences during his 14-year tenure as Robeson County’s elected district attorney. It painted him as a passionate crime fighter whose victorious record and colorful courtroom theatrics earned him national fame — and even a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s deadliest DA.”

However, the obituary failed to mention one crucial piece of Britt’s biography: He was the man who sent Henry McCollum and Leon Brown to death row. Thanks to Britt’s aggressive prosecution, two poor, intellectually disabled teenagers (Brown was just 15!) were sentenced to die and spent more than 30 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit. McCollum and Brown were exonerated in 2014.

This week, a more fitting tribute to Britt’s career was published. Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project issued a report detailing the legacies of five of the nation’s deadliest prosecutors, and Britt was among them. The report highlights what it calls “personality-driven capital sentencing,” which leads overzealous prosecutors with a flair for courtroom theatrics and a desire for personal fame to pursue death sentences at disproportionate rates.

Britt’s brand of over-zealous prosecution has been practiced by a handful of prosecutors across North Carolina, leading to disproportionate numbers of death sentences in counties such as Forsyth, Cumberland, Johnston, and Robeson. Many of those defendants remain on North Carolina’s bloated death row today.

This personality-driven system means that a death sentence often says less about the severity of the defendant’s crime, than it does about the prosecutor’s enthusiasm and courtroom skills. Personality-driven prosecutions can also lead to wrongful convictions, when prosecutors making winning cases a higher priority than seeking justice.

Britt’s style was summed up in a remark he made to an interviewer from 60 Minutes: “Within the breast of each of us burns a flame that constantly whispers in our ear, ‘Preserve life, preserve life, preserve life at any cost.’ It is the prosecutor’s job to extinguish that flame.” Read more