Lawmakers Look At Increased Penalties For Attacking Police

Tensions have ramped up in the past couple of years between law enforcement officers and some communities they serve.

Some states have passed laws meant to discourage attacks on police and many in the Minnesota Legislature want to join them.

Legislation awaits action by the full House; a similar bill has not been considered by any Senate committee.

“If somebody is willing to assault police officers, there are willing to assault anybody,” Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, said Monday, April 9, before the House Ways and Means Committee approved his bill on a split voice vote.

Johnson, a former police officer, told his story of responding to a call of a mother-son dispute. When he arrived, he discovered the son was in his 20s and a large man.

It was one of the few times as an officer that he thought he might die, Johnson said. In the end, he received help from another officer and the young man’s father, but the young man only was charged with misdemeanor assault.

“I was not injured, but I was in fear for my life,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s bill ups the penalty for assaulting an officer to a felony to up to two years in prison and a $4,000 fine. Under current law, the top penalty is a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

If an officer is hurt, it already is a felony.

Johnson said that higher penalties may reduce the number of attacks, but some Democrats disagreed.

“Criminal penalties do not prevent people from doing this,” Rep. Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, said

Rep. Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, said a felony charge would make it tougher to return to productive living for someone like the young man who attacked Johnson. “Unless they are very, very lucky, they are going to have trouble getting a job or finding a place to live.”

Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said he supports Johnson’s bill because “police provide the most important service we can provide, and that is public safety.”

While attacks on officers have gained lots of publicity, the number of officers nationally who died on duty last year fell to 129 from the 2016 total of 159. Most years in the past 100 topped the 2017 death total, with a high of 310 in 1930.

Ways and Means Committee members backing the Minnesota bill said departments already have a hard time finding qualified officers because many potential candidates feel the job is too dangerous.

The Johnson bill is one of several the Ways and Means Committee sent to the full House on Monday, the day lawmakers returned from a week-long Easter break. They must complete work by May 21.

Rice change advances

Legislation preventing state officials from enforcing a 1970s era law designed to keep wild rice waters clean advanced.

The bill by Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, also would establish a task force to report back to the Legislature early next year with recommendations related to the management of wild rice. A similar bill is making its way through Senate committees.

Commissioner John Linc Stine of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency lifted his silence on the measure Monday, saying that he earlier could not discuss it because of pending action by an administrative law judge.

The issue primarily is whether sulfate should be restricted in water where wild rice grows, and if so how much sulfate should be allowed. Many of the bill’s supporters said that scientists do not think sulfate is a big problem, but Stine disagreed.

“The bill represents an attack on science,” Stine said.

Betting rules could be reality

Daily fantasy sports would be regulated under legislation the House may consider.

The bill did not get a vote last year, but was updated with new dates Monday and sent back to the full House.

There is a dispute about whether fantasy sports betting is legal in Minnesota since the state outlaws games of chance, even when an element of skill is involved. However, law allows such betting with “bona fide determinations of skill,” House Research reported.

Bill sponsor Rep. Tony Albright, R-Prior Lake, told Ways and Means Committee members: “This does not expand gaming in Minnesota.”

No one argued with that, but Marquart and others said that fantasy sports betting is competition for charities such as youth sports organizations and civic clubs that raise money through their own gambling operations. While he supported the bill, Marquart said that the charity impact needs to be examined.

Albright’s bill requires criminal background checks for game operators and takes other oversight measures for the estimated 190 Minnesota fantasy sports operators that would have to register and pay a fee.

Registrars would get help

Deputy registrars who have dealt with state vehicle license and registration computer problems since July would get $9 million to reimburse their costs under a House bill.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said two deputy registrar offices have closed and others have spent more money than they otherwise would have because of “the misfiring of MNLARS.” Some offices that have not closed “are barely hanging on,” Baker said.

When new MNLARS software launched in July, Minnesotans immediately noticed long waits for vehicle registrations, titles and licenses — along with mistakes. Baker said things are improving, but the software still runs slow.

The Legislature last month approved spending $10 million through end end of June to continue the software fix, with another $33 million expected to be needed beginning July 1.