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    Ass'ywoman Karnette Changes Witness-Intimidation Bill To Witness-Protection Bill, Would Boost Funding For State Program Aiding D.A. Witness Protection Efforts

    (April 26, 2007) -- A state bill that proposed to make witness intimidation a mandatory felony (instead of the current prosecution-optional misdemeanor or felony) with stiffer jail time if the intimidation was linked to gangs, has been changed by its author, Assemblywoman Betty Karnette (D. LB), to provide additional revenue for CA's Witness Protection Program which reimburses D.A.'s for expenses incurred in protecting witnesses.

    The California legislative web site indicates that AB 790's April 10 Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing was canceled at Assemblywoman Karnette's request...and on April 18, she submitted substantively changed bill text.

    To view AB 790's new text, click here. To view the Assembly Public Safety Committee's legislative analysis of the changed bill, click here.

    On April 24, the Assembly Public Safety Committee approved the amended bill as a consent calendar item (passed without discussion) and referred it to the Assembly Appropriations Committee (usually it's last stop before the Assembly floor).

    In an April 24 release, Assemblywoman Karenette said, "It is absolutely essential that witnesses who are threatened get adequate protection. I mean, how do we expect people to testify if they and their families canít get the protection they need? It may be an uphill battle to find extra money for witness protection, but the issue is starting to get a lot of traction in Sacramento."

    The release acknowledges that Assemblywoman Karnette initially introduced AB 790 to expand penalties for witness intimidation but says she "has since refocused the bill onto witness intimidation programs after learning that witness intimidation funds were woefully inadequate."

    Assemblywoman Karnette's office adds that the L.A. County District Attorney's office (which could presumably access the additional witness protection funds) has written in support of the changed bill that the California Witness Protection Program (CWPP) is currently under-funded...and because of a lack of increased funding, CWPP cannot fund all of the requests for witness protection it receives.

    The new version of the bill is also supported by State Attorney General Jerry Brown, whose office runs the CWPP.

    As amended, AB 790 would allocate an additional $6 million in funding for witness protection programs, although funding would still depend on legislative approval each year as part of the budget process.

    In its original form, AB 790 was supported by the City of LB on a unanimous City Council vote in mid-March...and was separately supported by the LB Police Officers Association.

    Asked for his reaction to the changes, LBPOA President Steve James told that he wasn't told about them by Assemblywoman Karnette's office but recently received an update on pending state bills from his organization's Sacramento advocate. Lt. James commented off the cuff that Assemblywoman Karnette's bill may still be a good thing in its revised form by providing needed funding for witness protection efforts.

    An April 13 legislative status report to City Hall management by its taxpayer-paid Sacramento lobbying firm didn't mention possible changes; a more recent report indicated the bill had been amended but didn't provide details on the extent of the amendments (reported by us).

    Assemblywoman Karnette's office provided with the text of an April 5 letter opposed to the original mandatory-felony/enhanced gang penalty version of the bill from the California Public Defenders Association. The group's letter said in pertinent part:

    CPDA opposes this [original version of AB 790] measure because it removes all discretion to charge according to the individual circumstances of the crime. The "one size fits all" approach is not appropriate here as the circumstances are not the same every occasion that witness intimidation is alleged. True, some cases are violent and those are appropriately charged as felonies, but sometimes it can be as simple as pleading for a witness not to come forward because the defendant doesn't want to lose his or her job or kids, etc. Wrong? Absolutely. But does it rise to the level of a prison sentence? Not in every instance.

    Additionally, county public defender officers are already feeling the sting of unanticipated revenue reductions occasioned by the current economy; yet each escalation in penalty enacted by the Legislature requires an additional response by county public defender offices at a time when counties are hard pressed to maintain existing service level...

    Diplomatically unmentioned by Assemblywoman Karnette's release is another hurdle: the chair of the State Senate's Public Safety Committee, Sen. Gloria Romero (D., Los Angeles) announced in late March that her committee wouldn't advance bills that could lengthen criminal sentences and worsen CA's prison overcrowding (currently the subject of possible federal court action). The State Senate Committee's policy has already deterred or stopped a number of bills...and would presumably have halted the advance of Assemblywoman Karnette's bill in its original form.

    In February 2007, Assemblywoman Karnette indicated that she introduced AB 790 following LB's Halloween night beating trial in which the prosecution's key witness allegedly found a group of males she didn't recognize atop her parked car outside her residence and later had her parked car rammed.

    Reports of those acts led to truncated testimony from another key prosecution witness whose spouse, the prosecution told the court, feared his continued testimony. A defense motion to exclude his potential identification testimony was being argued when the prosecution, citing major upheaval in the witness' family, asked that he be excused from testifying further.

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