Bills target sex offenders, marijuana use, cellphone users

Adults who sexually assault children face the possibility of life in prison without parole for a first offense, and drivers caught using hand-held cellphones would face new penalties, under a wide range of bills approved by lawmakers Thursday.

In addition, penalties for marijuana use would be reduced. Each of these and dozens of other bills passed in the Senate and Assembly must pass the other house and win the governor’s support before they can become law.

The bid to increase penalties for sex offenders grew out of the February rape and murder of a San Diego-area teenager by a man who was paroled after serving five years in prison for molesting a 13-year girl. After his arrest on suspicion of killing 17-year-old Chelsea King, John Albert Gardner III led police to the remains of a second victim, 14-year-old Amber Dubois, who had vanished in February 2009.

Although Gardner wore a GPS tracking device as a condition of his parole, state corrections officials failed to notice multiple violations that would have allowed them to take him off the street, according to a report released Wednesday by California’s Office of the Inspector General.

The bill, AB 1844 by Nathan Fletcher (R-San Diego), would allow judges to sentence adults who rape children younger than 14 to life in prison without the possibility of parole if aggravating factors such as kidnapping or torture are associated with the attack. It would also become a crime for paroled sex offenders to visit so-called safe zones, such as schools and public parks.

Under existing law, sex offenders can’t live within 2,000 feet of schools or parks, “but you could sit there 24 hours a day,” Fletcher said

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised to sign the bill, known as “Chelsea’s Law,” if it passes the Senate as expected.

Another measure passed Thursday would increase fines for drivers caught using a hand-held cellphone or texting device. Proponents cited concern that many motorists are ignoring the current law against such activity because the fine is only $20.

Fines for the first offense would climb to $50 under SB 1475 by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) and $100 for subsequent offenses. Violators would also get a point added to their driving record, which could raise their insurance costs. In addition, the ban would be extended to bicyclists.

“The idea is we could save more lives and avoid more accidents if people took the law more seriously,” Simitian said.

A survey by the AAA estimated that about 60% of drivers are complying with the existing law.

Police officers would be exempt from the ban. That prompted Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), who opposes it, to argue that some people can safely talk on a cellphone and text while driving. And Sen. Gloria Romero (D- Los Angeles), who also opposes the measure, admitted to colleagues that she has picked up her cellphone to talk while driving, just as the governor’s wife has been spotted doing.

“The first lady is not alone,” Romero quipped.

Possessing an ounce or less of marijuana would go from being a misdemeanor to a simple infraction, eliminating the possibility that such minor cases could end up in court-clogging jury trials, according to Sen. Mark Leno (D- San Francisco), author of SB1449. The penalty would remain the same: a fine of up to $100 but no jail time.

“This is a waste of time and money at a time when we can’t afford any more waste, fraud and abuse,” Leno said.

Other bills advanced Thursday would:

•Allow illegal immigrants to receive state-administered financial aid to attend state universities. Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) said his so-called California Dream Act, SB 1460, would help young people who in many cases were brought to this country by undocumented parents. Sen. Bob Dutton (R-Rancho Cucamonga) voted against the bill, saying, “We don’t even have enough money to provide financial aid for students that are here legally, let alone ones that are here illegally.”

•Lift a 69-year-old exemption in state law that precludes paying overtime wages to agricultural workers after eight hours in a day. Current law allows extra pay only after a farmworker toils for more than 10 hours. SB 1121 is by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter).

•Allow Los Angeles International Airport to use an existing fee on car rentals to help pay for a $700-million centralized rental terminal at the airport. The measure is SB 1192 by Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D- Long Beach).