Concerns over domestic violence prompt proposed changes to annulment bill

  • Sen. Martha Hennessey addresses the Senate Judiciary Committee on Senate Bill 311, which she is sponsoring, at the State House on Thursday.   LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 2/7/2019 7:37:21 PM

Authors of a bill originally intended to expedite the process of clearing the criminal records of young offenders and victims of PTSD proposed an amendment Thursday that refocuses the legislation on first-time, low-level drug offenders.

The changes were proposed after advocates raised concerns about Senate Bill 311, which they say put victims of sex crimes and domestic violence at risk. In some cases, the bill cut in half the time that individuals charged with domestic violence and charges like indecent exposure would have to live with those crimes on their records.

Sen. Dan Feltes, the author of the proposed amendment, said that risk to victims was an “unintended consequence” of the original draft. He said it was more aimed to act as a safety net for young people swept up in the opioid crisis.

“This is dealing with low-level, drug-related crimes, committed by people under the age of 20,” Feltes said. “Young people starting out their lives, especially in the middle of an opioid epidemic, we don’t want to set people behind.”

The proposed amendment would allow offenders under the age of 20 to petition for annulment after three years, after finishing a sentence for a drug-related crime, or by the age of 23.

That way, past mistakes won’t interfere with their ability to obtain employment or housing.

“If you have a criminal record, you’re less likely to be employed, and if you are employed, you’re likely to earn 40 percent less on average,” said Jeanne Bruska, political director of the New Hampshire ACLU. “That is not helpful for anybody. It harms communities.”

SB 311 under the proposed amendment also allows those who are found not guilty of a crime to annul their court and arrest record for free. Additionally, it would allow people of any age convicted of driving under the influence to apply for annulment three years after completing their sentence instead of 10.

The original version of SB 311 would make defendants in a broader range of misdemeanor and felony cases eligible to petition for an annulment after they have paid 35 percent of restitution or say that they were suffering from PTSD at the time they committed the crime.

That list included those convicted of misdemeanor and felonious sexual assault.

Federal law requires that people convicted of a domestic violence crime and most misdemeanor domestic violence crimes have their firearms taken away permanently. But an annulment would change that, putting victims, law enforcement and social workers at risk, said Executive Director of the New Hampshire Coalition Lyn Schollett.

“Research shows that the risk of lethality in domestic violence cases increases significantly when there is a gun involved,” Schollett said. “Our concern with the bill right now is when a convicted domestic violence offender’s conviction is annulled, then they would be given the opportunity to purchase and own firearms. These are individuals who have a proven history of violence.”

Sixty percent of homicides in New Hampshire in the last five years were the direct result of domestic violence, Schollett said. Law enforcement officers are more likely to be injured or killed when they respond to a domestic violence situation than to other crimes, she said.

In addition, the current bill could impact victim’s ability to access their full restitution, Schollett said.

“It’s especially significant for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence who experience losses like damage to property – maybe a telephone ripped down from the wall, property that’s damaged in the course of a battering,” Schollett said. “It is enormously important that we look at issues of restitution so that victims are indeed made whole for their actual out-of-pocket costs.”

Schollett asked that legislators extend the time period before misdemeanor domestic violence offenders can petition for annulment from three years to 10 years.

University of New Hampshire Law professor Buzz Scherr said he supports the original bill. The amendment excludes too many people who commit non-violent offenses that are not drug related, he said.

“Nineteen- and 20-year-olds, they do stupid things,” Scherr said. “Not just drug- related stupid things.”

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