Legislature(2007 - 2008)BELTZ 211
03/12/2008 01:30 PM JUDICIARY
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* first hearing in first committee of referral
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= bill was previously heard/scheduled
HB 268-MOTOR VEHICLE ARSON ON PUBLIC LAND 2:36:50 PM CHAIR FRENCH announced the consideration of HB 268. BEN MULLIGAN, staff to Representative Bill Stoltze, said HB 268 establishes that intentionally starting a fire or causing an explosion that damages a motor vehicle is a class C felony. He explained that the legislation was suggested by a community where on average a dozen vehicles are burned each year. 2:37:58 PM SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI asked if the community would be Jim Creek. MR. MULLIGAN said that's correct, but according to testimony and discussion before the House Judiciary Committee vehicle arson occurs in other areas of the state as well. The bill was vetted through the departments of public safety and law as well as the Jim Creek community. CHAIR FRENCH asked if the bill differentiates between a new car and a junked vehicle. MR. MULLIGAN replied they're treated the same way because the hazard that the arson creates is the same. CHAIR FRENCH asked how much of the car has to burn for the statute to come into play. For example, would it apply to setting a tire on fire. 2:40:14 PM MR. MULLIGAN suggested he ask Trooper Dial, but he imagines that it would mean the entire car since statute describes a motor vehicle as one that's registered by the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI suggested getting a legal opinion because his interpretation is different. Noting that he's seen vehicles that have been damaged with bats, tire irons and shotgun blasts, he asked why the bill is limited to intentional damage by fire. MR. MULLIGAN explained that fires and explosions affect more than just the vehicle. The hazard potentially extends to the public, first responders, and the habitat. SENATOR THERRIAULT asked for a definition of motor vehicle. He questioned whether it would have to have two axles, tires and be capable of self propulsion. Referring to previous questions, he said he wasn't sure if the Chair was trying to differentiate between a part of a car or a BMW versus a junk car. CHAIR FRENCH said he has concern about making it a felony crime to damage a junked car. For example, kids could face felony charges for having built a campfire against an already junked car. "We may want to think about making certain that there's a certain level of damage done to the car." The bill talks about "damages" without placing any limitation on the significance of the damage. SENATOR THERRIAULT observed that the Chair wants to make sure this doesn't capture the bonfire that's set to roast marshmallows. 2:42:53 PM CHAIR FRENCH acknowledged he's thinking about the more insignificant instances that could provoke a felony charge, which is a very serious charge to face. SENATOR THERRIAULT commented that it's strange that if he were to torch his own car on public property it'd be a felony charge, but if he were to do the same thing on his own property it'd be okay. MR. MULLIGAN clarified that the bill was introduced to address a problem in the sponsor's district that was occurring on state and municipal land. If it should be addressed for private property the sponsor could look at that. SENATOR THERRIAULT said he understands the problem the bill targets and he's sympathetic, but he just wants to make certain this is the right approach. 2:44:06 PM SENATOR WIELECHOWSKI asked if it's not already a class C felony to burn someone's car because it would be destruction of property worth more than $500. The question was deferred to Lt. Dial. CHAIR FRENCH asked Mr. Mulligan if he had anything to add. MR. MULLIGAN pointed out that the bill talks about intentional damage so intent must be proved. For that reason he doesn't believe that someone who builds a bonfire that accidently burns a vehicle would be prosecuted under this bill. 2:45:09 PM DAVID TYLER, State Fire Marshal, thanked the sponsor for addressing the problem of burning abandoned and derelict vehicles. The bottom line is that it's hazardous to firefighter safety, he said. Not much thought is given to these fires, but they can be very hazardous. Front shock absorber bumpers can go off like grenades and fuel tanks can explode. Another hazard that's created is wild land fires. None have gotten to be serious large fires yet, but it's just a matter of time. Abandoned and burned vehicles can be found on the Chena Hot Springs Road, Steese Highway, and the dike on the Tanana River. Sometimes the vehicles are towed out and torched as a disposal method. 2:47:35 PM CHAIR FRENCH asked how often this occurs and if the typical car is nice and has been stolen and torched for fun, or an old beater that's torched for a different kind of fun. MR. TYLER estimated that fire departments in the Interior respond to vehicle fires between 20 and 30 times a year; he didn't have numbers for the entire state. The cars are usually older and abandoned. Sometimes they're torched to conceal a crime. 2:48:23 PM BRIT LIVELY, Butte resident, stated support for HB 268. She addressed previous questions about the kind of vehicles that are burned, whether there should be an exception for partial cars, or incidental burnings from campfires. According to the fire department, junk vehicles are usually towed or hauled in on trucks. Sometimes they're filled with extra tanks or propane bottles so that when they're torched the explosion is bigger. But newer cars that were stolen in Anchorage are also hauled out and torched. Recently a body was discovered in a car that had been torched a year earlier, allegedly it was a drug-related murder. In another instance a van load of stolen tires was torched in a wooded location close to her house. MS. LIVELY said she is one of the people who asked Representative Stoltze to introduce this legislation. Although some may think a class C felony for burning a car is "over the top", HB 268 is the solution for keeping the Butte community safe from this ongoing year-round problem, she said. Prior to approaching the sponsor, Butte residents consulted state troopers, emergency services, the local fire department, and a volunteer legal professional. The consensus was that the troopers didn't have the tools to deter this activity in the state even though this has been an ongoing problem for over 25 years. In the 90s the National Guard gathered up the wrecks in the Knik River Valley and Jim Creek area and dedicated volunteers disposed of the monstrosities. However, this activity has been accelerating and it's endangering local firefighters, contaminating woods and waterways, placing homes and lives in danger, and giving the area a reputation that contradicts the values and standards of its residents. "In our opinion HB 268, making car burnings a class C felony crime, will not jam up the legal system, but will serve as a powerful deterrent for misfits including gang members and car thieves who currently seem to enjoy their dangerous and destructive pursuits." Also, it will reassure residents and public land users that when they report these deeds the authorities will have the tools to arrest and prosecute these offenders. "HB 268 is an easy fix to convict, but it is even a more easy fix to deter," she said. 2:55:59 PM MARTY QUASS, resident of the MatSu Borough, said he strongly supports HB 268. He lives on the Knik River and has a panoramic view of the public use area under discussion. Over the years he's had occasion to call 911 to report car burnings and the typical response has been that resources aren't available and so nothing can be done. It's time to change that, he said. One day the woods will go up in flames and the Butte area residents will have a major calamity on their hands. CHAIR FRENCH observed that this behavior could be made a class A felony crime and it's doubtful that it would do anything about the manpower shortage that troopers and police face statewide. 2:57:50 PM CHAIR FRENCH asked Lt. Dial why vehicle burning isn't a felony criminal mischief. RODNEY DIAL, Lieutenant, Alaska State Troopers, explained that it's not a crime to damage your own vehicle, but it's criminal mischief to damage another person's property. In some car burnings it's possible to charge criminally negligent burning as well, but when someone damages their own vehicle on state or public land there isn't much that law enforcement can do. The ability to take some enforcement action is one reason the troopers support HB 268. He added that a class C felony allows the court to assess a wide range of sentencing options, from no time at all and suspended imposition of sentence, up to a couple of years in prison. CHAIR FRENCH set HB 268 aside for a subsequent hearing.