Senate Judiciary Committee takes up session’s first non-appropriation bill

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 563 views 

Lawmakers at the State Capitol on Wednesday (Jan. 16) kicked off what is expected to be a busy legislative session with a brief slate of introductory meetings where state representatives and senators got their marching orders from their respective committee chairs.

Following the earlier pomp-and-circumstance of inaugural activities for Gov. Hutchinson and other state officers, several standing committees in both chambers held organizational meetings to adopt panel rules and select seating arrangements for the assembly’s legislative work over the next few months.

In the Senate, that chamber’s Judiciary Committee got off to a rousing start by taking up the first non-appropriation bill of the 2019 session. Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, who has already pre-filed nearly a dozen bills, introduced Senate Bill 8 that would prohibit the unlawful use of an online image of a person 14 years of age or younger.

In touting his legislation, Garner said his bill would prevent registered sex offenders in Arkansas from taking pictures of underage girls and boys and posting them on social media and online websites. As an example, Garner cited a case in Maine where a state representative there introduced similar legislation after a registered sex offender posted online images of children and teenagers on Flickr, a social media site for posting and sharing photos.

The El Dorado senator said although the Maine sex offender had been convicted of three earlier counts of gross sexual assault of children under age 14, that state did not have a law on the book to make an arrest following a police investigation.

“There was no crime on the books to stop this, similar to how we are in Arkansas. I want to change that. But I think we have to do more to protect our children’s images. Not only protect the images of children, but to prevent sexual predators from using images of children to ‘catfish,’“ Garner said, referencing the sexual offenders who use fake online identities.

The South Arkansas senator went on to describe other instances that he has discussed with the state Attorney General’s office and other law enforcement officials where sex offenders and predators have used headshots of underage children and “photoshopped” their faces on top of a sexually explicit image.

“(They) use that for nefarious things,” said Garner. “If we pass this law, it will help prevent our children, our grandchildren and the (images) of children in our communities from being used in a disgusting and terrible fashion.”

Following Garner’s appeal, several lawmakers on the Senate panel questioned if SB8 would duplicate current legislation in state code that deals with registered sexual offenders and the posting of recordings and photos on social media sites. Others also cited language in the bill they felt needed to be cleaned up to clarify the bill’s intent.

After the Senate panel finished their back-and-forth with Garner, two opponents of SB8 told the senators that such legislation was overly burdensome and would create confusion surrounding the definition of a sexually explicit image. Carla Swanson, executive director of Conway-based Arkansas Time After Time, told senators on the judiciary panel that most sex offenders are not likely to engage in such activities as catfishing.

“(One) thing that I always try to point out to people is that 95% of all sexual offenders do not re-offend. But nobody believes me,” said Swanson, whose group’s promotes raising awareness about state sex offender laws.

Little Rock defense attorney Jeff Rosenzweig, representing the state Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called Garner’s bill “wildly overbroad.” He said that under SB8, simply by downloading, posting or saving an image of an underage child off the internet or a social media site — a registered sex offender would be committing a crime.

“There is not a requirement that this child be a living child,” argued Rosenzweig. “You could download a picture of a (dead) child taken during the Civil War and have it on your computer, and you’ve committed a felony. That’s extremely overbroad.”

After several minutes of discussion and Garner’s refusal to rewrite his bill to address concerns that it was too broad, Judiciary Chairman Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, decided to table SB8 until next week. Garner told reporters after the meeting he would consider amending some technical parts of his bill, but refused to alter the overall intent of his legislation.

“I strongly disagree with the use of ‘dead children,’ I could imagine a sexual offender would abuse that loophole to sexual exploit dead children and I am not going to allow that,” Garner said of Rosenzweig’s concerns.

Garner’s legislation is the first of dozens of bills expected to flow through Senate Judiciary, one of the influential standing committees that will review matters pertaining to state and local courts in the 2019 session. On Tuesday, Senate Pro Tempore Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, named Clark to chair the panel with Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, as the vice-chair.

During Wednesday’s introductory meeting, Hendren was also present and briefly asked Clark to remind all senators that committee and chamber meetings will be live-streamed online for the public to see. The newly named House Judiciary Chair, Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, also attended the first meeting of Senate panel and was offered a seat at the table by Clark. The former Miller County judge was named as chair of the House Judiciary Committee on Monday, replacing House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.

Clark and Flowers are also new to their Senate posts. Clark replaces former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who resigned from the legislature in late August after a federal grand jury indicted him on 12 counts of wire fraud and filing false tax returns for his involvement in an alleged corruption and bribery scheme. Flowers takes over the vice chair’s post formerly held by Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, who was lost her Senate seat to former Rep. James Sturch, R-Batesville.

Following the early committee meetings in both chambers, the Senate later convened and approved House Bill 1037. That bill, which is the first legislation approved by the Senate, sets aside general appropriations to cover interim expenses incurred by lawmakers during the session. The joint panel on Tuesday approved $368,000 in expenses for state representatives and another $200,000 for state senators.

Both the House and Senate also approved resolutions to recess on Thursday afternoon and reconvene Tuesday, Jan. 22, following a weekend of local and state events in observance of the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday on Monday.