Witness detention bill passes House

Posted: Monday, August 07, 2006

The Alaska House on Sunday approved a bill allowing police to detain reluctant witnesses to felonies.

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The bill was added to a special session that had been focused on oil and natural gas legislation because of the growing gang violence in Anchorage, where five young men since March 2005 have been shot to death.

Rep. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, said it would be a tool to help police investigate gang violence, but it's just one step.

"In no way is this the silver bullet that solves the gang violence problems," she said.

Under the proposed law, police would be allowed to subpoena, photograph, fingerprint and hold witnesses or people who have information that would provide material aid to felony investigations.

The detention of a witness would be allowed "only as long as reasonably necessary." Photographs and fingerprints taken of a witness could be used only to identify the person and must eventually be destroyed, unless the witness is suspected of a crime that is part of the investigation.

A witness who refuses to be photographed or fingerprinted could be charged with a misdemeanor and receive jail time of up to 10 days.

The House added language to the bill that said if it turns out that person did not have information to aid an investigation, a court could turn the misdemeanor charge into a civil fine up to $1,000.

"Making someone a criminal because they've asserted their rights, I think is a step in the wrong direction," said House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

Representatives turned down another amendment that would have required police who detain witnesses have a policy to protect those witnesses from retaliation. Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said the new law could be putting people in danger if they are forced to testify, so they should be protected.

Rep. Pete Kott, R-Eagle River, one of the legislators who voted against the amendment, said it would have created an unfunded mandate on police departments and municipalities.

A similar bill passed the Senate last week. The Senate now must concur with the House's changes or the two chambers would have to appoint a conference committee to work out a compromise before Thursday's end of the special legislative session.



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