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Eyeing exit, House lawmakers OK long agenda

June 14th, 2018

— House legislators worked late into the night Wednesday, hoping to wrap up work for the session by the end of June.

While many of the 40-plus bills approved were non-controversial matters, some that previously provoked debate also moved quickly through the floor debate process – with one notable exception.

Prison safety

There was unanimous support for increasing the penalties for prisoners who expose themselves or throw or eject bodily fluid at state or local employees working inside or outside prisons or other institutions.

Under House Bill 969, willful exposure of genitalia by a prisoner to an employee would be a Class I felony, while willful use of fluids as a projectile would be a Class F felony.

Sponsor Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, said the bill would help protect “ladies and gentlemen” who work in prisons and jails who are often targeted by prisoners for exposure, spitting or ejaculation. He said it could help with retention in the state’s correctional system, which has been plagued by high turnover and low morale.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

Opioid prevention

Describing Senate Bill 616 as “Part 2” of the state’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, Rep. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, took issue with media reports that it would allow local law enforcement to access a state database of citizens’ prescription drug records without a warrant.

“The HOPE Act does not allow fishing expeditions,” Murphy said. “That’s just not true.”

Nonetheless, House lawmakers voted unanimously to support an amendment by Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, restricting law enforcement access to citizens’ prescription records to cases involving “a bona fide active investigation with a good faith belief based on specific facts and circumstances equivalent to those normally required for a court order.”

Some Democrats and even some Republicans argued the amendment is insufficient to address the privacy concerns raised by giving law enforcement access to private medical records without going through the courts as required in other criminal cases.

“It allows the government to look at private records without a warrant,” said Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven.”We saw how well that worked out with the FBI and the CIA.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also objected to the proposal.

“We should not be giving law enforcement officers the power to snoop around people’s medicine cabinets and look at their entire history of prescription drug use without a warrant,” Sarah Gillooly, director of political strategy and advocacy for the ACLU of North Carolina, said in a statement. “This misguided approach would violate the privacy rights of innocent people and further stigmatize people with substance abuse issues, making it harder for them to receive proper treatment.”

But Murphy argued that only opioids are included in the database, not all prescriptions, and said instant access is needed to catch “gangs” who come into towns with fraudulent prescriptions to obtain opioids to resell on the streets.

“It takes five to seven days to get a judge to sign off on something,” he said.

Horn argued that the gravity of the state’s opioid epidemic justifies the loss of privacy. “Before we can start getting better, we’ve got to stop getting worse,” he said.

Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham, offered a compromise amendment that would allow any judge in the state sign an order without probable cause to allow access to the database.

Murphy said that idea would seriously weaken the bill, a stance echoed by Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, a deputy with the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office.

“There are plenty, more than enough checks and balances [already],” McNeill said. “If you vote for this, you might as well gut the bill.”

The amendment failed 48-55, and the bill itself was approved 88-24.

Farm Act

A couple of hours of intense debate during the afternoon over the annual farm bill was partly to blame for the late-night session.

The bill has been one of the most controversial pieces of legislation this session, especially provisions defining what can be called “milk” and limiting nuisance lawsuits against major agricultural or forestry operations, including hog farms.

Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, tried and failed three times to amend the bill – House Speaker Tim Moore stepped in one time to cast the deciding vote – saying he feels it invites a legal challenge by depriving neighbors of their right to sue over diminished property values or quality of life.

After Rep. John Bell, R-Wayne, accused Blust of “playing lawyer games” by trying to ensure that people who are now being harmed wouldn’t be stopped from suing as soon as the measure becomes law, an angry Blust blasted the “political jujitsu” lawmakers engage in too often, alleging that someone is against one group or another simply because he or she doesn’t march in lockstep with the lobbying efforts by and on behalf of those groups.

Rep. Dennis Riddell, R-Alamance, was able to get a provision added to the bill to allow limited purchases of raw milk in North Carolina. State law now forbids the sale of raw milk, and Riddell noted people he called “mooshiners” routinely go into Virginia or South Carolina to buy raw milk legally and bring it back to North Carolina.

The bill received initial approval 67-47, and a final vote is expected Thursday.

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