South Dakota, Marsy's Law campaign reach amendment deal

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Posted: Feb 14, 2018 4:56 PM
South Dakota, Marsy's Law campaign reach amendment deal

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers advanced changes Wednesday to a constitutional bill of rights for crime victims under an agreement with the group that has persuaded voters in several states to approve "Marsy's Law."

The state would be the first to alter Marsy's Law of the six that have enacted it. But amendment supporters have committed to helping pass the new changes at the ballot, offering a major boost to South Dakota lawmakers seeking to overhaul provisions of the measure voters approved in 2016.

House Speaker Mark Mickelson earlier this legislative session proposed getting rid of the constitutional amendment and instead strengthening victims' rights in state law. He and others worked with the Marsy's Law campaign on the deal, which strategy consultant Ryan Erwin says maintains the "enforceable, constitutional rights" that citizens approved.

"Voters are more likely to be receptive to positive improvements to this knowing that the constitutional rights will be protected," Erwin said. "I anticipate that this will be very popular with voters."

The measure passed with about 60 percent support in 2016. It guarantees crime victims and their family members the right to privacy, protection from harassment or abuse and timely notice of trial, sentencing and post-judgment proceedings.

It's named after California college student Marsalee "Marsy" Nicholas, who was stalked and killed in 1983 by an ex-boyfriend.

Her brother, billionaire Henry Nicholas, has bankrolled constitutional amendments approved by voters in California, Ohio, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Montana's Supreme Court recently tossed the constitutional amendment that voters approved in 2016, citing flaws in how it was written.

In South Dakota, brokered peace will spare lawmakers from running a race against a well-funded opponent. The Marsy's Law campaign spent more than $2 million to enshrine the 2016 amendment in the constitution with minimal opposition.

Mickelson, the sponsor of the proposed alterations, said the amendment has had unintended consequences. Critics say it's causing problems for law enforcement and prosecutors and spiking costs for counties.

Lynne Forbush told lawmakers that her husband was killed after a 16-year-old driver crossed a highway center line in South Dakota. She said the other driver's mother invoked Marsy's Law, forcing her to hire a lawyer to get an accident report to get an insurance claim started.

When Forbush's family members asked about Marsy's Law, she said they were told nobody knew how to handle the amendment because it was poorly written.

"It seemed like a hot potato that no one wanted to touch," she said. "Marsy's Law added to our emotional pain, added to the financial burden and prolonged the agony unnecessarily."

Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead has said his office depends on the eyes and ears of the public to help the Sioux Falls-based department solve cases, but the amendment has limited the information they can provide.

Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo had to add four victims' advocates after the amendment passed to make sure the office could stay in compliance. Vargo said he thinks the new plan will be "much more streamlined."

The proposal would ask voters to make changes to the amendment including requiring victims to opt into many rights, explicitly allowing authorities to share information with the public to help solve crimes and limiting the definition of a victim.

"It will allow us to focus on the victims that are truly most in need of help through what is a very frightening time for victims," Vargo said.

The House State Affairs Committee voted unanimously to move the proposal to the chamber's floor. It also would have to pass through the state Senate before heading to voters.

Erwin said the Marsy's Law campaign would like the proposal to appear on the June primary ballot, rather than waiting to go before November voters. Mickelson said he would back the move if it has "broad bipartisan support."