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Legislation ripped from headlines

State lawmakers propose a number of measures inspired by events that drew media attention.

May 04, 2008|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — True to a Capitol tradition of legislating by anecdote, lawmakers this year have found inspiration in a grandmother arrested for running a $50 betting pool, a man who called 911 dispatchers 31,000 times and another man who put photos of high school athletes on a pornography website.

Legislators have long responded to tragic, offensive or annoying events by trying to change the law -- especially crime laws -- and often succeeding.

This year's flurry of efforts that seem ripped from the headlines includes bids to reduce punishment for sports betting, increase penalties for nuisance 911 calls and restrict what can be posted on the Internet.

Sometimes lawmakers name their proposals after victims. This year they've offered "Adam's Law," "Larry's Law" and "R.J.'s Law," addressing caregiver crimes, harassment issues and drug testing for welfare recipients.

Another effort would create new penalties for stealing bees, whose value has risen as disease has ravaged the crop-pollination industry. Theft has cost commercial beekeepers $330,000 in the last year, according to Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), author of a bill that would give beehive thieves up to three years in state prison.

Experts and even some lawmakers say such quick-trigger responses do not always serve Californians well.

A January 2007 report by a state watchdog agency, the Little Hoover Commission, blamed "knee-jerk responses by lawmakers to horrific, high-profile and frequently isolated crimes" for a "chaotic labyrinth of laws with no cohesive philosophy or strategy." These laws, commissioners said, contribute to prison overcrowding but do not improve public safety.

"I'm sure the bills all represent legitimate concerns out there in the community," said Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View). "But it's this patchwork effect that's gotten us to where we're spending more on prisons than higher education."

Not immune to the punishment impulse herself, Lieber gained worldwide notoriety last year by saying it ought to be a crime to spank children younger than 4. She also sought, with less attention, to create a nonpartisan commission to prune California's thicket of crime laws and weigh whether the Legislature should return to parole boards the authority to set prison sentences, as was the case before 1976.

That proposal and a similar one by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) have been stalled. Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering more crime bills, many driven by incidents that generated public outrage.

An Orange County Register expose in January found photos of swimsuit-clad athletes from 11 local high schools on gay porn websites that included photos of nude men. And last year, self-proclaimed pedophile Jack McClellan antagonized Santa Clarita parents with a website that ranked the best places to watch little girls.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) responded with two measures. One would make it illegal to post without consent a photo of someone younger than 18 on an Internet site containing obscene matter. The other would make it a crime to publish photos or descriptions of children or their location if the intent was for another person to use the information to commit a crime against that child.

State law has been outpaced by technology, Smyth said: "My two bills are trying to catch up."

He called the measures "very narrow in focus because of constitutional concerns."

Opponents said the bills would cast a net wide enough to allow prosecution of innocent users of popular social-networking websites.

"YouTube contains obscene material, and MySpace and Facebook," said Shane Gusman, lobbyist for the California Public Defenders Assn.

The measure is "so broadly defined that somebody could innocently post a picture on one of those websites . . . and it could be used against them," Gusman said.

"Everybody wants to be the person who's going to put dangerous criminals behind bars forever, and that's understandable," Gusman said. "It just seems to me there's not a lot of thought put into the consequences of what they're doing."

Smyth said that he realizes the odds are long against both bills but that he is working to address opponents' concerns.

Most crime bills seek to ratchet up penalties. A rare exception is a proposal by Republican Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, who found he couldn't ignore what happened at an Elks Lodge a few miles from his Lake Elsinore home.

Last year, acting on a tip, state alcoholic beverage control officers cited two bartenders at the club for operating a football betting pool with a total prize of $50. The two women -- 73 and 39 years old at the time -- were fingerprinted. Mug shots were taken. They were fined $131 each and given six months' probation.

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