NC Democratic legislators introduce sweeping election reform bills

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Rallying for election reforms, House Democrats unveiled a new bill entitled the “Fix Our Democracy Act” and highlighted a recently introduced measure designed to safeguard voting rights at a press conference Tuesday.

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, said the Safeguarding Voting Rights bill (HB 446) she’s co-sponsoring “gives no favor to any party” by focusing on four areas to ensure ease and accessibility for voting: voter registration and absentee/mail-in voting, recruitment of pollworkers, increasing flexibility for voting hours and the rights to vote during state holidays.

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham

Morey stressed the importance of expanding mail-in voting. The bill would require the state Board of Elections to send out absentee ballot requests to every eligible voter with pre-paid postage at least 90 days before Election Day. The bill would make the one-witness requirement enacted temporarily by the General Assembly for the 2020 elections a permanent measure. The bill further requires at least one drop-off site in each county. Ballots postmarked by Election Day would still be counted if received no later than three days after the Election Day at 5 pm.

“My colleagues and myself strongly believe this is the time we encourage people to vote,” Morey said.She noted that  HB 446 seeks to make voting secure and easy and noted the many restrictive voting bills have been introduced across the country.

Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford, previewed another new bill HB 542. She said the Fix our Democracy Act aims to fix our democracy “each person having an equal voice”

Rep. Ashton Clemmons, D-Guilford

Clemmons explained that the proposal builds upon House and Senate bills with the same name from 2019, by advancing a series of reforms in elections, redistricting, voting, campaign finance, lobbying and transparency. Neither of the 2019 bills made it out of their committees.

A Senate version of HB 542, SB 716 has also been introduced by Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg.

Among the Fix Our Democracy Act’s provisions are:

Voting and redistricting

  • Online and automatic voter registration – The measure allows eligible citizens to register to vote automatically whenever they interact with government agencies, such as the DMV, unless they decline to do so. A voter purge would only be allowed when the nonforwarding postcard from the county board of commission was returned.
  • At least one polling place required on college campuses with over 4,500 enrolled students. Read more

New advisory board to review sentences of individuals tried in adult criminal court as teens

In keeping with “raise the age” law, Governor establishes new panel that can make recommendations for clemency

Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order Thursday forming the state’s Juvenile Sentence Review Board. The advisory board will review the sentences of people who were tried in adult criminal court in their teens over a decade ago, and then make clemency and commutation recommendations to the governor, according to a press release.

Nowadays, most teens under 18 enter juvenile courts first if they don’t have criminal convictions, except if the conviction is a misdemeanor unrelated to impaired driving under North Carolina’s bipartisan Raise the Age Act. Yet before the state enacted the law in December 2019, 16 and 17-year-olds were automatically tried in the state’s adult criminal justice system regardless of their charges.

Back then, teens were denied the chance to have their cases heard in juvenile court proceedings, which includes counseling and rehabilitation and the North Carolina Judicial Branch describes as “more informal and protective than a criminal trial.” Gov. Cooper’s order now reviews the petitions of qualified individuals who missed the new opportunity before the law was passed and potentially received harsher sentences.

Those eligible to file petitions must have served at least 20 years of their active sentences, or 15 years of their minimal sentence if they have multiple sentences.

“For those who have taken significant steps to reform and rehabilitate themselves, this process can provide a meaningful opportunity for release and a life outside of prison,” Cooper said in the press release.

After receiving petitions, the board will then make recommendations based on a petitioner’s prison record, circumstances of their case as well as their mental health state at the time, rehabilitation results, the present risks to public safety, their family’s input and whether race unduly influenced their trial or sentencing.

Rep. Marcia Morey was appointed chair of the Juvenile Sentence Review Board created by Gov. Cooper.

In his order, Cooper laid out two main tasks of the board: to “promote sentencing outcomes that consider the fundamental differences between juveniles and adults” and to “address the structural impact of racial bias.”

Cooper appointed four members of the board, who serve at his pleasure:

  • Marcia Morey, chair of the review board, is the state representative for House District 30. Morey, D-Durham, was a district court judge in Durham for 18 years before serving as Chief District Court Judge for five years. She is a member of the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice and proposed several Raise the Age bills this year.
  • Henry McKinley “Mickey” Michaux Jr. is a civil rights attorney and a retired state legislator. He represented House District 31 twice, from 1973 through 1977, and then 1983 to 2019.
  • Thomas Walker is a partner at the Atlanta-based law firm of Alston & Bird. He is a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina from 2011 to 2016. He was a special counsel to Cooper when Cooper served as the state’s attorney general.
  • Allyson Duncan is a former judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth District. Prior to her tenure on the federal appellate court, Duncan served as an associate judge on the North Carolina Court of Appeals, the first African American in that position.

Morey touted the task force as “a monumental step forward for juveniles who were sentenced as adults” in a tweet.

The board was created at the recommendation of the Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.

The order is effective immediately through the end of 2024.

With REAL ID law going into effect in October, NC Democrats introduce bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses

Proposed legislation introduced Wednesday in the North Carolina House (House Bill 311) would allow those without immigration paperwork to obtain a legal driver’s license from the state, with certain restrictions.

Rep. Ricky Hurtado, D-Alamance, is sponsoring a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for restricted driver’s licenses.

At a press conference Thursday hosted by the Alianza de derechos de los Inmigrantes de Carolina del Norte, (the Immigrants’ Rights Alliance of North Carolina), bill sponsor Rep. Ricky Hurtado, an Alamance County Democrat, said providing undocumented immigrants access to a drivers’ license plays a pivotal role in building an inclusive and safe community.

Hurtado stressed that the purpose of the proposed licenses would merely be to provide paperwork for drivers’ identification for undocumented members of the community. It would not meet the requirements of a federal REAL ID.

Passed in 2005, the federal REAL ID Act requires states to adopt a set of safety standards for identification. Since then, states have transitioned to enhanced driver’s licenses that are compliant with REAL ID standards. The REAL ID law goes into effect Oct 1, 2021.

Individuals who can show proof of legal immigration status can hold REAL IDs that are valid for limited terms. North Carolina has already issued such driver’s licenses of shorter durations according to provisions in the statute.

In cases where the proof of citizenship or lawful presence is lacking, however, the REAL ID law does allow states to issue noncompliant IDs. The proposed restricted driver’s license in Hurtado’s bill is such an example.

Hurtado said even having the restricted IDs in place would be a huge step forward for North Carolinians. He said the bill is essential for many North Carolina immigrants who work on the front lines and would make them more comfortable when they’re visiting a doctor or trasnporting their kids to school.

Rev. David Fraccaro, the executive director of Faith Action International Health said at the conference Thursday that the bill will not only benefit hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants but also facilitate better safety for the community in general. He said a state-issued ID would lessen concerns of victims who fear reporting crimes to law enforcement because of their undocumented status. Fraccaro called on Republican members of the General Assembly to support the bill.

“This bill allows our communities to drive on the road, to have a place, to have a house, having identification dedication on their hands”, said Juvencio Rocha-Peralta, the executive director of the Association of Mexicans in North Carolina (AMEXCAN) at the press conference. “When somebody asked him who they are, at least they can say ‘this is my North Carolina ID.'”

Another bill sponsored by Senate Democrats would achieve similar effects. Both measures would add a new subsection to the law about restricted licenses and terms of eligibility.

Both bills would also require applicants for the proposed restricted driver’s license to be a resident of North Carolina and have paid state taxes. They would also need to pass the road test and prove insurance.

In addition, both bills propose a different design for these restricted IDs that makes them discernible from REAL IDs, in compliance with the federal REAL ID Act. However, a provision in the Senate bill specifically prohibits criminal investigation, arrest, or detention based on the possession of these IDs alone.

The Senate bill also includes language that specifies what the restricted driver’s license would only be good for establishing driving privileges, meaning that it couldn’t be used for access to federal buildings, eligibility for employment and benefits, or voting.

Hurtado’s House bill states that the cost to obtain these licenses would not exceed $53. The two bills have been referred to the Rules committees in their respective chambers.

Individuals charged with misdemeanors could get their first appearance in NC courts sooner under bipartisan bill

Under state law, individuals charged with felony offenses are guaranteed a first appearance hearing before a district court official within 96 hours after they are taken into custody. But the same rule doesn’t apply to those facing misdemeanor charges. On Wednesday, however, a House bill that would make the time limit uniform for felonies and misdemeanors and reduce it to 72 hours was approved by the House Judiciary 3 Committee.

Image: NC Criminal Court Process, via North Carolina Bar Association

District court is typically the entry point for those involved in criminal cases. At first appearance hearings, individuals facing charges have their bail reviewed by a judge or magistrate, a lawyer assigned to their case, and a court date set for later.

Without the same mandate that applies to felony charges, however, some defendants accused of misdemeanors sit in jail awaiting their first court appearances for weeks, even longer than the jail time they could have been sentenced to, said Rep. Joe John, D-Wake, a lead sponsor of the bill at the meeting.

The bill was recommended by the Courts Commission, a non-standing committee of the General Assembly. A previous version of this bill was filed in the legislative session last year but was never heard by any committee.

John is a member of the Courts Commission. He served as a district court judge and later a superior court judge based in Greensboro, and presided over trials for more than 25 years.

John told Policy Watch that some jurisdictions  already hold both felony and misdemeanor court sessions within 96 hours of the initial arrest, but it’s necessary to adopt a uniform practice across the state.

While the original bill would have set a 96 hour requirement for both felony and misdemeanor charges, an amendment adopted during Wednesday’s meeting lowered the limit to 72 hours. That means a person detained in jail on a Friday would get their case heard by the following Monday.

Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Haywood, Jackson, Swain) said he supports the bill but not the amendment, citing concerns over the difficulty of traveling for sheriff’s offices in mountainous regions like his jurisdiction.

Chuck Spahos, a representative of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys said at the meeting that those charged with felonies and misdemeanors should receive the same treatment of up to 96 hours before the first appearance hearing.

The Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice established by Gov. Roy Cooper recommended that legislators require the first appearance hearing in 48 hours or the next in-session day in district court.

John emphasized at the committee that the bill also provides that clerks of court can conduct first appearance proceedings. Clerks of court in North Carolina have the authority to do so when judges are unavailable under current law.

Senate committee revives previously vetoed proposal to mandate sheriffs’ cooperation with ICE

Black sheriffs from state’s largest counties renew their opposition

Despite drawing sharp criticism from sheriffs and community members, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill today that would remove the discretion of local sheriffs when it comes to cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The most current version of Senate Bill 101 would require local sheriffs to make an inquiry to ICE when they cannot determine the immigration status of a person charged with felony drug offenses or violent crimes.

Not only does the bill make this inquiry compulsory, it creates a new detention policy. If ICE requests local law enforcement agencies to hold individuals, judicial officials would have to lock them up in jails for at least 48 hours regardless of their pretrial release conditions set by the state, or until ICE picks them up.

These ICE warrants, also known as “detainers,” serve as the main conduit for the federal immigration authority to put people into the deportation system, according to the ACLU. However, the ACLU stated, these people in custody were detained without due process.

In the state court system, judges and magistrates normally set pretrial release conditions for people based on their likelihood of appearing in court and their risk to public safety.

A similar version of the bill, HB 370 in 2019, was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper. “This bill, in addition to being unconstitutional, weakens law enforcement in North Carolina by mandating sheriffs to do the job of federal agents, using local resources that could hurt their ability to protect their counties,” Cooper expressed concerns in his veto

The bill’s sponsor Sen. Chuck Edwards, (R-Buncombe, Henderson & Transylvania), said it’s important to reconsider the bill. “We are seeing crime rates escalate in counties that are not cooperating with ICE,” he said. He asked the committee members for their support after altering some of the language from the original bill. The newer version wouldn’t remove a sheriff from office if they refuse to make immigration status inquiries to ICE, but would charge them with a misdemeanor crime for failing to do so.

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Gary McFadden said at the meeting that he strongly opposed the bill. McFadden, who spent over two decades investigating violent crimes said the measure will undermine the trust of law enforcement within the community.

McFadden said, “Instead of allowing someone to simply deport someone before having a day in court, the victim should be able to confront the accuser, and the accuser, should be able to confront the victim in court.”

Eddie Caldwell, the vice president of the NC Sheriffs’ Association told committee members that the organization voted 59-3 in support of HB 370 in 2019 and will likely support this bill.

In response, McFadden pointed out that while the sheriffs opposing this bill are relatively few in number, they represent the state’s largest counties and 80% of its population.

Wake County Sheriff Gerald Baker joined McFadden in opposition. He said African American sheriffs in the eight biggest counties in the state all strongly oppose the bill.

Two members of the public representing the Hispanic community spoke at the meeting, warning against the bill’s potential impact — causing fear and separation for many immigrant families.

The bill was passed by a voice vote in the committee, with a few Democrats dissenting. It will next head to the Senate rules committee before proceeding to a floor vote.