Opinion

Bills were in progress before COVID-19

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

In the ninth week of the legislative session, we continued our work debating bills and sending them to the House of Representatives before the second funnel next week. I floor managed two important bills and I will highlight each bill below. 

 

Courthouse break-ins

 

In the dark of night on Sept. 11, 2019, the Dallas County Courthouse was broken into. Polk County municipal buildings were also broken into and plans were in the works to breach other courthouses throughout Iowa. It was soon discovered these break-ins were part of a security operation ordered by the Iowa Judicial Branch to test security procedures in these counties. After a Senate Government Oversight meeting, the Judicial Branch explained they had contracted with an out-of-state, third-party vendor to organize these "physical penetration tests" without notifying anyone in those courthouses or law enforcement. The contract lacked specifics on how those break-ins would be handled, what they would entail, and what limits would be placed on the vendor.

Frankly, I think this whole episode is troubling, and just plain stupid, dangerous, and irresponsible. There was no coordination with local officials to inform them of such penetration tests, and law enforcement was not notified before or after the event. The Dallas County "bandits" were arrested in the act. Perhaps most troubling of all was the cavalier attitude with which these bandits acted toward local law enforcement after their arrest, even claiming they had a "get out of jail free" card. Those involved are fortunate nothing serious happened when law enforcement arrived.

With Senate File 2394 we are sending a very clear message that the county — and indeed, the taxpayers of the county — owns, maintains, operates, and provides security for the building — not the Judicial Branch. It makes the county auditor, subject to the direction of the county board of supervisors, the person with custody and control of a courthouse and provides that courthouses are under the exclusive control of the county or city. 

 

Protecting victims' rights

For years, the legislature has worked together in a bipartisan way to help protect survivors of crime. Our state law protecting survivors' rights is sound. Chapter 915 — while not perfect — is close to comprehensive. In addition to statutory protections, more than thirty states have some form of constitutional protection for crime victims.

Naturally, some have asked why we need to constitutionalize victims' rights in Iowa. The simplest answer is this: When a defendant's constitutional rights conflict with a statutory victim protection, the defendant's constitutional right will always prevail. Accordingly, the Iowa Senate took the first step this week of constitutionalizing victims' rights. The amendment, SJR 2005, provides that: "The rights of a victim of crime, as provided by law, shall not be infringed."

To be very clear, this is not about reducing defendant's rights. It is about elevating victims’ rights. In our modern system of justice, when the state prosecutes an individual alleged to have committed a criminal act, the state brings its full might, power, and resources to meet a high burden of proof. Accordingly, our federal and state constitutions — and the many cases on criminal law and procedure interpreting the constitution and laws — provide a robust set of rights to protect the defendant's due process rights.

While crime may be prosecuted by the government, crime is generally committed against an individual or individuals — victims.  As I said before, this is not a measure to reduce robust constitutional and statutory protections for defendants. Rather, it is an amendment to elevate the rights of crime victims — survivors — to ensure their rights receive greater weight on review and work to provide a mechanism for survivors to protect their rights from encroachment, and, when necessary, to enforce their rights.

The language in SJR 2005 allows us to constitutionally protect victims’ rights which "shall not be infringed," while not being overly prescriptive in nature. This gives the legislature the flexibility to act quickly to add, limit, or fix deficiencies in Chapter 915 "as provided by law," while elevating those rights to a higher standard of protection before a court.

There has been much discussion around the country on criminal justice reform. But the fact is, for every offender, there is a victim or a survivor.  And as we consider taking steps to make Iowa a more favorable place for ex-offenders to re-enter society, it is particularly important to continue to do all we can to make Iowa the best state in America for survivors of crime. I want to ensure the rights of crime victims are protected, enforced, and that the impact of crime on survivors, their families, their lives, and their communities is never forgotten or marginalized.