DOVER — A bill approved by the state Senate on party lines Thursday would tighten the standard around police use of force.
Senate Bill 147 would create an objective use-of-force standard for law enforcement in Delaware by adding the word “reasonably” throughout state law to make clear the use of both lethal and non-lethal force is legally justified only if that belief is determined to be reasonable. Forty-three other states use that same objective standard.
All 50 instances in which police in the state used deadly force from 2005 to 2019 were found to be justifiable according to the statute on the books.
“Under current Delaware law, any use of force by a police officer, no matter how egregious and unnecessary, is considered perfectly legal as long as the officer in question uses the magic words, ‘I believed,’” main sponsor Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-New Castle, said in a statement.
“I think we all agree there is such a thing as excessive force and it should be prosecuted. This legislation will allow us to finally hold police officers accountable in a court of law when they commit unjustifiable acts of violence, something that is absolutely necessary if we ever hope to restore trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Also passed by the same 14-7 margin was a bill to expand the Delaware Department of Justice’s ability to review police use-of-force incidents that result in serious physical injury in addition to its existing mandate to examine all deadly force incidents. The measure, Senate Bill 148, would require the state to report the race of individuals involved in use-of-force cases and specify whether race played a factor in how force was applied.
Both proposals now go to the House.
The Senate also passed a bail measure that would set a presumption of secured cash bail for defendants accused of a variety of violent offenses.
Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 7, approved 19-2 Thursday, seeks to prevent dangerous offenders from being released ahead of trial. The measure would apply to about three dozen serious offenses, such as felony domestic violence, first-degree child abuse and assault.
It would also require individuals released on bail for any of the crimes listed in Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 7 to temporarily forfeit any firearms in their possession. The bill would still allow the courts to set minimal cash bail based on the facts of each individual case and the flight risk posed by each defendant.
In 2018, the General Assembly passed legislation urging judges to first consider pre-trial release conditions before setting cash bail. At the time, more than 700 people were being held in jail solely because they could not pay bail.
Measures that would have further moved Delaware away from a cash bail system while still allowing judicial discretion did not pass the prior General Assembly, in part due to COVID-19 disrupting most of the 2020 session.
Senate Bill 11, a related measure awaiting a vote by the Senate, would amend the Delaware Constitution to allow bail to be withheld entirely for cases involving those same serious offenses if there is clear and convincing evidence a defendant presents a danger to public safety or no other condition will assure his or her appearance in court. Currently, the constitution only permits bail to be withheld in capital murder cases.
As a constitutional amendment, the change could not take effect until 2023 at the earliest.
A clause included in the bill passed Thursday would cause it to expire if Senate Bill 11 becomes law.
“The people of Delaware should not be asked to sit idly by for the three years it will take to amend our Constitution,” Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown, said in a statement. “The Senate today took a crucial step toward simplifying the rules around our bail system and ensuring preventative detention is being used to protect Delawareans while upholding the presumption of innocence enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
“We have seen time and again how individuals under extreme duress with ready access to firearms can cause devastating violence. Protecting our communities from violent defendants needs to be about more than setting cash bail. We also need to remove firearms from the equation until their criminal cases have been adjudicated.”
Several defense attorneys testified against the bail bill in committee earlier this week, expressing concerns it will hurt the poor and lacks safeguards to ensure people are not detained ahead of trial unnecessarily.
“Inevitably, it’s going to result in individuals being incarcerated who do not need to be incarcerated,” said James Turner, an assistant public defender with the Office of Defense Services.
It now goes to the House.
Another measure approved by the Senate Thursday would offer a one-time amnesty period for drivers with toll debts in collection.
The Toll Violation Amnesty Program, authorized by Senate Joint Resolution 5, would waive most administrative fees and civil penalties, which can dramatically increase the cost of debts owed over time. Consequently, a driver who fails to pay a $1 toll is initially assessed $51 in toll debt, which increases to $88.50 if it is not taken care of within an additional 42 days.
Drivers who fail to pay tolls on Del. 1 or Interstate 95 have racked up $143.4 million in debt, with almost 92% of that going unpaid in recent years.
Under the resolution, a three-month amnesty window would enable motorists to settle their balances based on the full amount of tolls owed plus an additional fee stemming from the number of toll violations for each individual. For example, a person with nine toll violations could satisfy the $796.50 toll debt by paying just $69, while a person with 496 toll violations could eliminate his or her $43,896 debt by paying $1,306.
Individuals with toll debts will receive notice of the program if the resolution becomes law. All toll violations that occurred on I-95 and Del. 1 between Jan. 1, 2014, and April 30, 2020, would be eligible for the amnesty program. Toll debt incurred on U.S. 301, the state’s only other toll road, cannot be modified because of bond requirements.
The Volunteer Ambulance Company Fund and the Fund to Combat Violent Crimes would receive a portion of each amnesty fee collected during the program. The state estimates the program could generate $1.7 million.
“We’re happy to work with the General Assembly to help individuals resolve their outstanding toll violations,” Secretary of Transportation Nicole Majeski said in a statement. “Of the 70 million toll transactions that occur each year, about 1 percent result in a violation. We recognize these can add up and be burdensome and this limited amnesty period will allow people to satisfy their debts.”
Per DelDOT, 623,578 license plates have one to 10 unresolved toll violations.
Contract renewal protections
The Senate on Wednesday unanimously approved legislation to protect consumers from unknowingly entering into service contracts with hidden automatic renewals.
Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 93 would require companies to present these renewals, known as “evergreen” clauses, in a clear and conspicuous manner and provide a written notice to consumers about an upcoming renewal. It would also mandate businesses make it easy for consumers to cancel.
Any contract in violation of the provisions laid out in the bill would be considered voidable by the consumer. Additionally, while sellers would be able to retain a prorated fraction of any prepaid fees or costs based on the date of cancellation, the outstanding amount would be due to consumers within 30 days.
“We have all been a victim of automatic renewals at some point,” main sponsor Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, said in a statement. “Sometimes it’s on us, but sometimes it comes down to fine print and manipulative tactics used by companies to help us forget about upcoming cancellation deadlines. This bill mirrors legislation in several other states and finally levels the playing field on cellphone contracts, gym memberships and any number of other contracts that use these clauses.”
Twenty-nine states currently have some type of law regulating the automatic renewal of contracts, per the Senate Democratic caucus.
The change, which now goes to the House, would take effect in 2022.
Also approved by the Senate Wednesday were several measures to strengthen oversight of early childhood education programs.