Legislation ripped from headlines

Times Staff Writer

True to a Capitol tradition of legislating by anecdote, lawmakers this year have found inspiration in a grandmother arrested for running a $50 betting pool, a man who called 911 dispatchers 31,000 times and another man who put photos of high school athletes on a pornography website.

Legislators have long responded to tragic, offensive or annoying events by trying to change the law -- especially crime laws -- and often succeeding.

This year's flurry of efforts that seem ripped from the headlines includes bids to reduce punishment for sports betting, increase penalties for nuisance 911 calls and restrict what can be posted on the Internet.

Sometimes lawmakers name their proposals after victims. This year they've offered "Adam's Law," "Larry's Law" and "R.J.'s Law," addressing caregiver crimes, harassment issues and drug testing for welfare recipients.

Another effort would create new penalties for stealing bees, whose value has risen as disease has ravaged the crop-pollination industry. Theft has cost commercial beekeepers $330,000 in the last year, according to Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), author of a bill that would give beehive thieves up to three years in state prison.

Experts and even some lawmakers say such quick-trigger responses do not always serve Californians well.

A January 2007 report by a state watchdog agency, the Little Hoover Commission, blamed "knee-jerk responses by lawmakers to horrific, high-profile and frequently isolated crimes" for a "chaotic labyrinth of laws with no cohesive philosophy or strategy." These laws, commissioners said, contribute to prison overcrowding but do not improve public safety.

"I'm sure the bills all represent legitimate concerns out there in the community," said Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View). "But it's this patchwork effect that's gotten us to where we're spending more on prisons than higher education."

Not immune to the punishment impulse herself, Lieber gained worldwide notoriety last year by saying it ought to be a crime to spank children younger than 4. She also sought, with less attention, to create a nonpartisan commission to prune California's thicket of crime laws and weigh whether the Legislature should return to parole boards the authority to set prison sentences, as was the case before 1976.

That proposal and a similar one by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) have been stalled. Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering more crime bills, many driven by incidents that generated public outrage.

An Orange County Register expose in January found photos of swimsuit-clad athletes from 11 local high schools on gay porn websites that included photos of nude men. And last year, self-proclaimed pedophile Jack McClellan antagonized Santa Clarita parents with a website that ranked the best places to watch little girls.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) responded with two measures. One would make it illegal to post without consent a photo of someone younger than 18 on an Internet site containing obscene matter. The other would make it a crime to publish photos or descriptions of children or their location if the intent was for another person to use the information to commit a crime against that child.

State law has been outpaced by technology, Smyth said: "My two bills are trying to catch up."

He called the measures "very narrow in focus because of constitutional concerns."

Opponents said the bills would cast a net wide enough to allow prosecution of innocent users of popular social-networking websites.

"YouTube contains obscene material, and MySpace and Facebook," said Shane Gusman, lobbyist for the California Public Defenders Assn.

The measure is "so broadly defined that somebody could innocently post a picture on one of those websites . . . and it could be used against them," Gusman said.

"Everybody wants to be the person who's going to put dangerous criminals behind bars forever, and that's understandable," Gusman said. "It just seems to me there's not a lot of thought put into the consequences of what they're doing."

Smyth said that he realizes the odds are long against both bills but that he is working to address opponents' concerns.

Most crime bills seek to ratchet up penalties. A rare exception is a proposal by Republican Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, who found he couldn't ignore what happened at an Elks Lodge a few miles from his Lake Elsinore home.

Last year, acting on a tip, state alcoholic beverage control officers cited two bartenders at the club for operating a football betting pool with a total prize of $50. The two women -- 73 and 39 years old at the time -- were fingerprinted. Mug shots were taken. They were fined $131 each and given six months' probation.

"It was absolutely ridiculous that there was any law enforcement from any agency working on this friendly wagering," Jeffries said. His legislation, which has bipartisan support, would reduce the operation of or participation in sports betting pools from a misdemeanor to an infraction such as a parking ticket.

"If you're doing it for high-dollar big bets, there's a house take and a profit-driven motive, you're still going to be under the reach of the law," Jeffries said.

Assemblyman John Benoit (R-Palm Desert) has a 911 measure that preceded the headlines, but not by much.

In February, the former California Highway Patrol officer proposed stiffer penalties for false 911 calls. A day later, Hayward police arrested 45-year-old John Triplette on suspicion of making, in the previous year, more than 31,000 cellphone calls to various law enforcement dispatchers. Triplette was making small talk, beeps, grunts and "other bodily noises," according to police.

Triplette is now the poster boy for Benoit's measure, which passed the Assembly on Thursday with strong support. The bills by Evans, Smyth and Jeffries must clear the cost-conscious appropriations panel before they can be taken up by the Assembly.

Some may face tough going in the Senate, which last year rejected measures that would worsen prison and jail overcrowding.

Another pending measure would have made it an infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $500, for a school employee not to report serious acts of discrimination or harassment. The "Larry's Law" proposal, by Assemblyman Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park), was prompted by the fatal shooting in February of a gay eighth-grader in an Oxnard classroom.

Last week, Eng deleted the penalty portion of his bill. Now the measure simply calls for the state to spend $125,000 to help five schools deal with hate crimes and student conflict.

"R.J.'s Law," offered by Benoit, would have required drug testing for welfare recipients but was rejected despite a plea before the Assembly Human Services Committee by its namesake, R.J. Feild. The 15-year-old boy from Jurupa, near Riverside -- who was born weighing 2 pounds to a drug-addicted mother and has cerebral palsy -- had suggested the bill.

Last month, Democrats on the committee politely raised concerns about cost, noted that welfare officials can already ask recipients if they are using drugs, and voted no.

"Adam's Law" was better received. It was introduced by Assemblyman Mike Villines (R-Clovis) after a man in his district beat a girlfriend's 1-year-old son so severely that the boy, Adam Carbajal, was left partly paralyzed, unable to speak and prone to seizures.

The measure would create a new felony punishable by 15 years to life in prison for a caretaker who hurts a child under 8 badly enough to cause brain damage or paralysis.

Adam -- now 4, smiling and silent in a wheelchair -- attended an Assembly Public Safety Committee hearing last month on the bill. His mother and grandmother came too.

"We had to convince the judge that that monster deserves more than three years in prison," his grandmother, Maria Garcia, testified about Adam's convicted attacker, Ramon Curiel. Minutes later, the committee passed the bill unanimously.

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The legislation

California lawmakers have introduced bills this year that would:

Ban posting of children's photos on pornographic websites

(AB 2104 by Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita)

Prohibit posting information about children to aid a crime

(AB 534 by Smyth)

Lengthen prison terms for abusers who leave children paralyzed (AB 1987 by Assemblyman Mike Villines, R-Clovis)

Require school officials to report harassment of or by pupils

(AB 2762 by Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-Monterey Park)

Minimize penalties for operating a sports betting pool

(AB 1852 by Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore)

Stiffen penalties for false 911 calls

(AB 1976 by Assemblyman John Benoit, R-Palm Desert)

Increase penalties for beehive theft

(AB 2849 by Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa)

Test all welfare recipients for drugs (defeated)

(AB 2389 by Benoit)

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Source: California Legislature

More information is available at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/

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Bills from the news

Two examples of crime-related proposals inspired by news headlines. More on Page B15.

Child abuse

"Adam's Law," based on a case involving Adam Carbajal, above, would create a felony punishable by 15 years to life imprisonment for a caretaker who hurts a child younger than 8 badly enough to cause brain damage or paralysis.

Betting pools

Margaret Hamblin was one of two bartenders cited for operating a football betting pool with a total prize of $50 at an Elks Lodge in Lake Elsinore. A lawmaker wants to reduce the penalty for friendly wagering from a misdemeanor to an infraction such as a parking ticket

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