Legislature(2007 - 2008)CAPITOL 120
02/06/2008 01:00 PM JUDICIARY
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* first hearing in first committee of referral
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HB 268 - MOTOR VEHICLE ARSON ON PUBLIC LAND 1:20:36 PM CHAIR RAMRAS announced that the next order of business would be HOUSE BILL NO. 268, "An Act relating to damaging a vehicle on public land by starting a fire or causing an explosion." 1:20:44 PM REPRESENTATIVE BILL STOLTZE, Alaska State Legislature, sponsor, said of HB 268 that it is very important to the "Butte portion" of his district and addresses an issue that was brought to his attention [by constituents]. CHAIR RAMRAS noted that the Knik River Public Use Area has experienced a great deal of lawlessness, included the lighting of cars on fire. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE concurred, adding that although some of that activity has been curtailed, it still continues, blighting the area as well creating a safety hazard for those who respond to those fires. House Bill 268 is intended to address this problem. Specifically, the bill adds to AS 11.46 the crime of arson in the third degree, and makes it a class C felony. He offered his hope that the bill will serve as a deterrent rather than be imposed in that many instances, and mentioned that the bill has been reviewed by community leaders and law enforcement entities. He said he hears about this activity frequently and spends much of his time dealing with issues arising in the Knik River Public Use Area; the behavior of lighting cars on fire or causing them to explode is behavior that can't be resolved through regulation. CHAIR RAMRAS asked whether the bill applies to both working motor vehicles and abandoned motor vehicles. 1:26:34 PM BEN MULLIGAN, Staff to Representative Bill Stoltze, Alaska State Legislature, on behalf of Representative Stoltze, sponsor, explained that it does, since the vehicles being lit on fire are not always abandoned vehicles. REPRESENTATIVE HOLMES questioned whether the proposed crime ought to be a class A misdemeanor - like the crime of criminally negligent burning - rather than a class C felony. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE offered that the behavior HB 268 is meant to address is similar to the behavior outlined in the existing arson statutes, which are both felonies, including causing potential risks to public safety. He reiterated his hope that the bill won't be applied in many instances but will instead serve as a deterrent. In response to a question, he said the bill is aimed at the person starting the fire and is not focusing on why the vehicle is lit on fire. MR. MULLIGAN added that the bill will apply regardless of why the vehicle is lit on fire. REPRESENTATIVE DOOGAN, referring to the photographs included in members' packets, noted that some of the burned cars also have bullet holes in them, and asked whether current law precludes shooting vehicles in a public use area. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE said he is not aware of any laws addressing the shooting of vehicles, though that behavior certainly contributes to the blight. REPRESENTATIVE DOOGAN questioned whether those in charge of the public use area are going to address that issue as well. MR. MULLIGAN indicated that they are currently going through the process of designating both safe and unsafe shooting areas. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE relayed that they don't want the shooting of vehicles continuing either. REPRESENTATIVE COGHILL opined that vandalizing vehicles rises to the same level as lighting them on fire. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE said his larger concern is the public safety risk associated with burning vehicles, adding that that is the issue the public wants to see resolved. 1:34:00 PM RUSS MADDOX, Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance (RBCA), relayed that the RBCA supports HB 268. The burning of cars is not just a problem in the Matanuska-Susitna region; it's also been a big problem in Seward for a number of years. He offered his observation that those who are abandoning their vehicles are not always the same people who are lighting those vehicles on fire and otherwise vandalizing them. One possible solution, he proffered, would be to make it easier and cheaper to safely dispose of vehicles, rather than merely punishing the end product of their being burned. He surmised that this is a statewide problem. 1:35:48 PM WYN MENEFEE, Chief of Operations, Central Office, Division of Mining, Land and Water, Department of Natural Resources (DNR), relayed that the burning of vehicles is occurring on state lands, and that removing such vehicles comes at considerable cost. The State of Alaska, itself, has paid to remove about 50 such vehicles, the Fairbanks North Star Borough has removed about 60 such vehicles from state lands, and private groups have cleaned up over 100 such vehicles from the Knik area. Anything that can be done to discourage the activity of burning cars will be beneficial. 1:37:26 PM ARTHUR M. QUAAS said he would be speaking in favor of HB 268. He relayed that he lives on the south side of the Knik River and can see the public use area on the other side of the river, and that he used to call the Division of Alaska State Troopers on a regular basis to report burning cars, but the response from the division was always that law enforcement personnel didn't have any way to access that area and couldn't do anything about that activity anyway. After his name was broadcast over the police radio a couple of times, he stopped making such calls, because those who are out setting vehicles on fire were also monitoring the police radio so that they'd know when to leave an area. When watching a vehicle on fire, one is left wondering just how long it will be before the surrounding area also catches on fire. In conclusion, he reiterated that he is in favor of HB 268. 1:39:15 PM KENNY BARBER, after relaying that he lives in the "Butte area" and has helped remove some of the vehicles that have been set on fire, said he supports HB 268. He posited that the setting of vehicles on fire is a statewide problem, and opined that the bill will help in the long run. 1:41:14 PM PATTY BARBER said she supports HB 268, and opined that something like it has been needed for a long time. CHAIR RAMRAS surmised that the question the committee should address is whether the behavior outlined in the bill warrants a class C felony. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE concurred. 1:42:31 PM GREGORY NELSON (ph), Co-Founder, Butte Area Residents Civic Organization (BARCO), indicated that BARCO requested legislation such as HB 268. "Car burnings" have been a concern of residents for many, many years, he added, and expressed appreciation for making the burning of vehicles on state or municipal land a class C felony. He went on to say: For over 25 years we've been told by borough and state officials that they don't have the resources nor the tools to fight the epidemic of car burnings everywhere. These activities has been accelerating, endangering local firefighters, contaminating our woods and waterways, placing our homes and lives in danger, and condemning this great community and this beautiful area to a reputation that belittles and contradicts the values and standards which residents in normal communities can rightfully and peacefully enjoy. MR. NELSON opined that passage of HB 268 will assure concerned residents and other users of public spaces that when they observe and report this particular criminal activity, they will be assisting law enforcement agencies which will then arrest and charge those committing this offense. He said that residents have seen a steady increase in illegal activities in the area, and that perhaps the behavior of vandalizing a vehicle on state or municipal land should also be curtailed, adding that adequate vehicle disposal has always been an issue. [Chair Ramras turned the gavel over to Vice Chair Dahlstrom.] 1:45:19 PM DAVID TYLER, State Fire Marshal; Director, Division of Fire and Life Safety, Department of Public Safety (DPS), opined that legislation such has HB 268 should have been introduced a long time ago. Burning vehicles are dangerous, particularly for firefighters, because vehicle fires create a lot of hazards. For example, "shock-absorber" bumpers, when heated up, can explode like grenades and take a firefighter out at the knees; fuel tanks can fail, thus spilling fuel on the ground and creating further hazard; many items that people carry in their vehicles can also create a hazard. Just walking up to extinguish a burning vehicle is an extremely dangerous task. Furthermore, burning vehicles can start wild-land fires, and although to-date there have not been any large wild-land fires, they are cause for concern because they threaten wildlife, wild lands, human life, and personal property. He concurred that the Butte area isn't the only area of the state that is experiencing this problem. In conclusion, he said he strongly supports HB 268. [Vice Chair Dahlstrom returned the gavel to Chair Ramras.] CHAIR RAMRAS asked what the current penalty is for burning a vehicle. MR. MULLIGAN offered his understanding that currently there is no specific penalty, but that perhaps the activity could be charged as criminal mischief. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE reiterated that the bill establishes the crime of arson in the third degree and makes it a class C felony. REPRESENTATIVE COGHILL pointed out, though, that the crime of criminal mischief in the third degree is also a class C felony, and that HB 268 specifies that the arson be committed on state or municipal land. CHAIR RAMRAS asked whether one could be arrested for committing a class A misdemeanor crime. 1:50:07 PM RODNEY DIAL, Lieutenant, Deputy Commander, A Detachment, Division of Alaska State Troopers, Department of Public Safety (DPS), offered his understanding that for a class A misdemeanor, a person can only be arrested if he/she commits the offense in the presence of a law enforcement officer; if the officer didn't witness the event, he/she would complete an investigation and then forward that information to the district attorney's office for prosecution. In response to a question, he said that if an officer came across a burning vehicle, he/she would probably first try to ensure the safety of those around the vehicle, then call the appropriate resources to deal with the fire, and then conduct an investigation regarding who owns the vehicle and who started the fire. He offered his understanding that the crime of criminally negligent burning - AS 11.46.430 - would only apply if the vehicle belonged to someone else; currently, one can burn his/her own vehicle. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE noted that the question of whether a particular behavior is intentional requires a high standard of proof, and surmised, therefore, that HB 268 won't make it easier to arrest and prosecute someone. Setting cars on fire, however, creates risk to life and property, and it is that risk which HB 268 is intended to address. REPRESENTATIVE DOOGAN pointed out, though, that that same risk is created regardless of where the car is located when it is set on fire, and regardless of who owns the car. He asked whether current law addresses situations in which vehicles are set on fire on private property and when the vehicle is owned by the person setting it on fire. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE said the bill only addresses activity on state and municipal land because that's where the offenses are occurring, and characterized that limitation as a policy decision. LIEUTENANT DIAL said the troopers do not investigate individuals destroying property on their own private property - there just is not the same level of interest. REPRESENTATIVE DOOGAN surmised that the burning of vehicles is not occurring on private, federal, or Native corporation land. LIEUTENANT DIAL indicated that the troopers haven't received any such complaints. The committee took an at-ease from 1:56 p.m. to 2:01 p.m. 2:01:53 PM GERALD LUCKHAUPT, Attorney, Legislative Legal Counsel, Legislative Legal and Research Services, Legislative Affairs Agency (LAA), as the drafter, in response to a question, explained that the sponsor wanted to establish a lesser form of the crime of arson, and that militated that that crime be a class C felony. However, should the committee decide that the behavior outlined in HB 268 would be better equated with the crime of criminally negligent burning, the bill could be altered to that effect. He offered his understanding that the difference in penalties for a class A misdemeanor as opposed to a class C felony is that the former could warrant up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000, whereas the latter could warrant up to five years in jail - though there is a presumptive sentencing range of between zero and two years - and a fine of up to $10,000. LIEUTENANT DIAL, in response to comments and a question, observed that the current criminally negligent burning statute doesn't seem to be discouraging the activity of setting vehicles on fire. [Notwithstanding existing AS 11.46.400] he said that the troopers only charge a person with a felony if damage to property belonging to another exceeds $500, and surmised that it could be argued that the cost to the public of putting out such a fire and disposing of a burned vehicle far exceeds $500 and thus a felony charge would be appropriate. MR. LUCKHAUPT added that if there was a reason to recommend one type of charge over the other it would be that the crime of criminally negligent burning already exists as a class A misdemeanor and requires a lesser mental state than HB 268, which requires that someone intentionally damage a motor vehicle - though it matters not who's vehicle it is - by starting a fire or causing an explosion while the vehicle is on state or municipal land. Therefore, if the activity outlined in HB 268 becomes a class A misdemeanor, most such cases would be subsumed by the criminally burning negligent statute and so the proposed offense wouldn't be needed or used because it requires additional proof. 2:07:29 PM MR. LUCKHAUPT, in response to a comment, reiterated that HB 268 would apply regardless of who owns the vehicle being burned; furthermore, if the penalty remains a class C felony, then the bill would also continue to require a higher mens rea - "intentionally". He opined that the bill proposes a reasonable progression with regard to penalties and mental intent. Again, if the penalty proposed in HB 268 were lowered to a class A misdemeanor, it wouldn't be used. REPRESENTATIVE HOLMES suggested that they could instead make the penalty a class A misdemeanor and reduce the required mental state to criminal negligence. REPRESENTATIVE STOLTZE pointed out that that's essentially the crime of criminally negligent burning, which has proven to be ineffective. He again reiterated his hope that the bill won't be used often but will instead act as a deterrent. REPRESENTATIVE HOLMES asked whether a person starting a vehicle fire that then burns out of control and causes further damage could be charged with other crimes as well. LIEUTENANT DIAL said it is possible, though such instances would have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. For example, the types of other crimes that might be charged would depend on whether someone gets injured as a result of setting the vehicle on fire. REPRESENTATIVE HOLMES asked whether they need to include an exemption in the bill for training exercises. MR. LUCKHAUPT, in response to the earlier question, noted that it is a misdemeanor to start or know of a fire and allow it to escape; that in some instances, in addition to a jail sentence and a fine, civil damages could also be sought from the person [starting] the fire; and that there is another criminal penalty that could accrue to someone starting a fire on undeveloped land, but it wouldn't apply to vehicle fires. CHAIR RAMRAS, after ascertaining that no one else wished to testify, closed public testimony on HB 268. 2:15:35 PM REPRESENTATIVE DAHLSTROM moved to report HB 268 out of committee with individual recommendations and the accompanying fiscal notes. There being no objection, HB 268 was reported from the House Judiciary Standing Committee.