New Laws Target Driving, Crime, Politicians

By: - December 31, 2008 12:00 am

Photo courtesy of Jackie Vu

An electronic billboard on California’s 5 freeway reminds drivers that as of Jan. 1, they cannot send text messages while driving.

When the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Day, a variety of new laws across the country take effect, including some that warrant immediate notice. For example, if you’re text-messaging while driving in California at 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, hit the send button fast. Or if you’re in an Oregon bar enjoying a smoke, snuff it out in a hurry.

Jan.1 is the effective date for a wide range of new state laws, some of which touch many lives. For example, at least 10 states will raise their minimum wage.

Other laws affect a specific group of people, such as politicians. An Illinois law banning pay-to-play politics – when companies that do business with the state give campaign money to state officers who oversee their bids or contracts – has attracted national headlines. That’s because of the recent arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) on charges that he tried to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder, while on a mission to rake in as much campaign money as possible before the law could take effect.

A sampling of new laws that take effect Jan. 1

In the three months between the law’s enactment and its effective date, prosecutors said Blagojevich tried to raise .5 million, mostly from state contractors. The governor worked “with the urgency of a salesman meeting his annual sales target,” U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald said in a statement.

Blagojevich has vowed to fight the corruption charges.

Another state government will radically change the way it relates to its citizens in one aspect. Pennsylvania’s new “Right to Know” law means the state will go from having one of the country’s weakest open-records laws to one of the strongest. The biggest change: the burden is now on government agencies to prove why their documents shouldn’t be released; previously, the one making a request had to prove why the documents were public.

The new law stems from the controversial late night vote by legislators in 2005 to give themselves a hefty pay raise without public comment or debate; the backlash later led lawmakers to rescind the raise. But few people outside the General Assembly even knew a pay raise vote was planned until lawmakers passed the law at 2 a.m. Under the new law, the public will be able to receive advance notice of such actions.

“They kept that secret for as long as they possibly could,” said Tim Potts, president of Democracy Rising PA , which promotes transparency in government.

Potts predicts state agencies will soon be flooded with information requests. “There’s going to be a lot of folks testing the limits. So much information has been denied over the years, people are clamoring to get their hands on it now,” he said.

California’s law banning texting while driving – which makes it the seventh state with such a law – is one of the more high-profile of the new driving laws.

Several states are beefing up their drunken driving laws, just in time to punish New Year’s partygoers who over-imbibe and get behind the wheel.

California will impound the car of anyone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.01 percent if that person already has a previous driving-under-the-influence offense. Alaska, Illinois, South Carolina and Washington state will require those convicted of drunken driving to install a special breathalyzer in their cars, which locks the vehicle’s ignition if the driver is intoxicated.

Smokers continue to take a hit. Oregon becomes the 22 nd state with a comprehensive workplace smoking ban. The previous law exempted bars, bowling alleys and bingo halls.

Five states – Delaware, Iowa, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas – will join another 17 in requiring cigarettes sold in the state to be “fire-safe,” meaning they are rolled in paper that will extinguish by itself.

In social issues, same-sex couples in Washington state will get more rights in areas such as property and estate planning, and the state will also recognize same-sex unions performed in other states. Same-sex couples in Arkansas, however, will no longer be allowed to adopt, the results of a ballot measure voters passed in November.

Adult adoptees born in Maine can now get their original birth certificates, and California strengthened a law to provide foster children a better chance to attend their court hearings; now judicial officers must postpone hearings for children ages 10 and up if they have not been given notice of the hearing.

California also has two new education laws. One protects journalism teachers at colleges and high schools from being fired or transferred if student-reporters publish an unfavorable article or editorial. The other law gives school officials more power to suspend or expel students for cyberbullying, or bullying using an electronic device like a phone or through an Internet Web site like MySpace or Facebook.

A slew of crime laws will also take effect on New Year’s Day. In Illinois, judges will be able to order those who violate a restraining order to wear tracking devices. The Cindy Bischof law is named for a woman who was gunned down by her ex-boyfriend; before her murder, she had asked about using global positioning system technology to keep track of him.

Alaska sex offenders and child kidnappers must add their e-mail addresses and online names to state sex offender databases, and Illinois offenders can no longer work as election judges or at home day-care centers.

In Maine, a new law makes it a felony to force someone to work in a commercial sex trade, which includes stripping, pornography and prostitution.

And starting Jan. 1, California vandals who create graffiti will have to clean up their mess, while veterans with license plates designating a special military status, such as Purple Heart or Medal of Honor recipients, Pearl Harbor survivors or former POWs, can park in metered spots for free.

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