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Omnibus Justice Act, 9 Other Bills Easily Clear Rules

Aug. 27, 2004 – In an unusually fast-paced and efficient meeting, the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday afternoon approved 10 bills, most of which would impact the territory's finances and judicial system.
In the morning session, which started shortly before 11 a.m., nearly an hour late, the committee took about an hour and a half to approve four nominees to two commissions. (See "Rules Approves Horse Racing, CZM Nominees".)
Three of the afternoon bills had just passed the Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee on Wednesday — measures increasing penalties for animal cruelty, establishing a V.I. Supreme Court, and authorizing peace officers to issue appearance tickets for misdemeanor offenses.
The bills will most likely all be on the agenda of a three-day legislative session expected to be scheduled shortly after the Sept. 11 primary election.
Sen. Lorraine Berry's massive 84-page Omnibus Justice Act of 2004, which was the subject of numerous hearings before her committee over several months, also got the nod from Rules which now sends it to the full Senate.
Among the bill's provisions is one for the creation a civilian police review panel, something strongly opposed by Police Commissioner Elton Lewis, other police authorities and Attorney General Iver Stridiron.
Berry introduced an amendment on Thursday changing the panel's make-up from nine members to seven, five to be appointed by the governor and two by the V.I. Bar Association president. All would be subject to Senate confirmation.
The governor's nominees must include a victim advocate, a public housing Tenants Council member, a Chamber of Commerce member and a retired law-enforcement officer; the fifth can be anyone of the governor's choosing.
The commission would have the power to investigate allegations of crime within the Police Department including use of deadly force, discrimination and extortion. It could convene hearings to take testimony and recommend corrective action including prosecution. However, the panel would not have the authority to enforce its recommendations; that would be at the discretion of the Police commissioner and the V.I. Justice Department.
The omnibus bill makes several changes in the V.I. Criminal Code, including:
– Requiring that window tinting in vehicles allow at least 70 percent of light to pass through.
– Giving the beleaguered Narcotics Strike Force a new name – the V.I. Drug Enforcement Bureau.
– Changing child-custody laws.
– Setting penalties for the willful transmission of HIV/AIDS.
Sen. Carlton Dowe was lauded by his colleagues for his perseverance in getting the legislation through to establish a V.I. Supreme Court. Dowe has long advocated the creation of a local appellate court. His legislation has been widely hailed by the legal community as something is sorely needed. "This is historic, Earth-moving. We ought to move post-haste," Dowe said.
Cases appealed from Territorial Court are now reviewed by judicial panels consisting of two District Court judges and two Territorial Court judges. Since there are only two district judges, they serve all the time, while the territorial judges serve on a rotating basis. As a result, Chief District Judge Raymond L. Finch testified in support of the bill, "The present appellate division does not have the time available to properly consider and move and determine appellate cases judicially." (See "Committee OKs Bill to Create V.I. Supreme Court".)
Sen. Louis Hill commended Dowe's persistence, saying his colleague "has done a masterful job." Hill added: "The time is overdue. I can't tell you how proud of him I am and how strongly I support this bill."
The committee also approved and forwarded to the full Senate:
– A bill establishing the V.I. Office of Homeland Security.
– The Financial Services Act.
– A bill mandating the Health Department to adopt the 2001 edition of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Code.
– A bill mending government hiring procedures to assist the Personnel Division in certifying candidates for employment.
– The V.I. National Incident-Based Crime Reporting Act, which will require the Police Department to adhere to national FBI standards in collecting crime statistics.
Committee members present Thursday were Sen. Roosevelt David, the chair; and Sens. Berry, Douglas Canton Jr., Dowe and Hill. Sens. David Jones and Ronald Russell were absent.

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