The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 9, 2013

Judiciary OKs Amber Alert expansion

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Six years ago, a Kansas woman turned up raped and strangled, triggering a national campaign by her parents to compel cell phone firms to provide a “ping” on a wireless device at the request of police so an immediate search can be launched.

In Monday’s meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that campaign took another stride in making West Virginia the ninth state to approve the “Kelsey Smith Act.”

And, the panel agreed to expand the Amber Alert program so that any missing child immediately makes the list, rather than wait until confirmation of an abduction.

Police in Kansas were denied access to Kelsey Smith’s cell phone number for four days, and once the wireless provider relented, her body was found in 45 minutes.

Under the bill, now on its way to the Senate floor, police could compel a wireless provider to issue a “ping” on the phone of anyone considered to be in danger.

Smith’s death led her parents, Greg and Missy Smith, to launch a national campaign to change laws in every state to expedite the search of missing persons through technology when police believe the situation warrants it.

In Smith’s case, police were unable to have immediate access to her cell phone number since law at the time required that a missing person initially dial 911 for assistance.

Without debate, the committee approved HB2453, inspired by the tragic death of Skylar Neese after her kidnapping last summer in Monongalia County.

Since only known abductees are objects of the Amber Alert, she was regarded as a runaway and the general public wasn’t notified of her disappearance.

Delegate Charlene Marshall, D-Monongalia, sponsored the House bill, pointing out in a floor speech that the youngster, whose remains were found in Pennsylvania, had served as one of her legislative pages eight years ago.

The committee also decided to approve HB2548, elevating penalties for assault and battery against athletic officials so that they conform to those for general victims of such crimes.

Senate counsel Jay Lovel explained that the penalty for assault, now between $50 and $100, moves to a maximum fine of $1,000, while the jail term ranging from one day to 30 days in jail can go to six months.

For battery, the existing penalty of $100 to $500 is increased to a maximum of $1,000, while a jail sentence between 24 hours and one month is moved to up to one year.

Before approving the legislation, senators engaged in some lively comments.

Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, wondered if assault, which doesn’t require actual touching of a victim, could be interpreted to mean “arguing with an official about a call, yelling, screaming, profanities, things like that.”

“Essentially, assault is the use of language that puts one in reasonable fear of harm,” Lovel said.

Thus, Jenkins said, yelling from behind a fence at an umpire that “I’m going to get you” could lead to a charge.

“In defense of all the blind umpires out there...” Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, began, provoking a round of laughter.

A year ago, he noted, legislation covered athletic officials specifically, but the penalties were lower than for victims in the general public.

“Basically, what we’re doing is raising the penalties so they’re up to a standard with everybody else,” he said.

By a split vote, the committee approved SR24 that calls on the state’s Congressional delegation to support a proposed constitutional amendment in protest to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United that allows corporations and unions to make unlimited donations to political candidates.

Senators also approved HB2579 that lets the state Department of Environmental Protection monitor selenium discharges at coal mine installations, while research is performed at the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University.

House leaders warned earlier that failure to enact the bill would have a chilling effect on coal production.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman told the Senate committee the selenium issue has been a topic of discussion with the Environmental Protection Agency for several years.

“We’ve been waiting for them to take the lead,” he told the committee.

“It’s apparent to us now that they’re not going to take the lead any time soon. We think moving on with our own information gathering, our own research and therefore our own recommendation at the end is the right thing to do.”

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