State News

Republican lawmakers propose to amend state constitution, give crime victims more rights

Two Republican legislators proposed amending the Wisconsin Constitution Tuesday in order to give crime victims more rights.

Image By: Katie Scheidt

Crime victims could receive greater protections in the courtroom under a proposal announced Tuesday by state Republicans.

The proposal is part of an amendment that would also allow victims to speak out at a greater number of court hearings and to refuse interviews with attorneys for suspects.

The legislation, dubbed as “Marsy’s Law,” is part of an effort to increase victims’ rights nationwide. The law is named after Marsalee Nicholas, a California college student who was killed in 1983 by her ex-boyfriend. Her brother now advocates for victims’ rights laws across the country.

Wisconsin was the first state to establish a “crime victim bill of rights” in 1980. Another amendment was later adopted in 1999 to afford victims more privacy. The new amendment, created by state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, and state Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, would expand on these rights.

To become part of the state constitution, the amendment needs to pass in two legislative sessions and confirmed in a statewide referendum. At the earliest, this could happen in 2019.

“This constitutional amendment will update our Constitution to ensure equal rights for crime victims that are clear, enforceable, and permanent. It’s time we get to work,” Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a Tuesday press release.

The rights suggested in the amendment do not reinvent the wheel. Rather, the amendment would change court proceedings, Schimel said.

"We're really not talking about giving new rights to crime victims," Schimel said in a press conference Tuesday. "We're talking about the stature they're given in the courtroom."

The proposed amendment raises some concerns for defense attorneys. Defense attorney Stephen Meyer told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the amendment could create difficulties if the defendant is wrongly accused and alleged victims refuse to turn certain types of evidence, such as emails or text messages.

North Dakota lawmakers, where a similar amendment has passed, have experienced confusion with the vagueness of the law and have expressed concern that the amendment will slow down the justice system.

UW-Madison political science professor David Canon noted that this amendment is incredibly complicated and multifaceted.

“It is a difficult balancing act. You need to respect the rights of victims, but you also can’t violate the defendant's rights to a fair trial. It’s going to be really hard to get this balance right,” Canon said.

Despite the complexity, Brian Reisinger, a spokesman for Marsy’s Law, told the Associated Press that he is confident that Wisconsin will not struggle like other states, since Wisconsin is a leader in advocating for victims rights.

“Our focus needs to be on caring for and protecting ... victims, not coddling criminals,” Wanggaard said in a statement.  

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