Amendment would expand victims' rights


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, July 6, 2018

North Carolina's crime victims would have expanded rights under a proposed constitutional amendment going before voters this fall.

Those rights would come with a price tag, however, as district attorney's offices would need more staff to meet the amendment's requirements.

Last month, lawmakers passed House Bill 551, legislation that proposes amending the North Carolina Constitution to give more rights to more crime victims. Currently, the constitution provides that victims of specific crimes, as defined by state law, are entitled to information about relevant court proceedings. They are also entitled, under the law, to be heard when the person convicted of a crime against them is sentenced or being considered for release from incarceration.

The proposed amendment would extend crime victims' rights to anyone who's suffered a crime against their person or been the victim of a felony property crime. It would also allow require the General Assembly to establish a procedure so family members, custodians or guardians could assert those rights for a victim who's dead, legally incapacitated, or a minor.

In defining the victims' rights, the amendment would modify rights to guarantee and define them in the constitution, rather than allow state law to define or limit them. It would remove the phrase “as prescribed by law” from rights to be informed about and present for court proceedings involving those accused against them, as well as guarantee victims may be “reasonably” heard at not only the accused's sentencing, but hearings involving pleas, convictions, adjudication or release.

Victims could also request to be informed if the accused escapes the custody of law enforcement or prison officials.

The proposed amendment enjoyed bipartisan support, including from area lawmakers Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, and Reps. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, and Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Cook said the amendment further advances the victim's rights amendment added to the constitution in 1996. Among other provisions, he noted the new amendment specifically extends victims' rights to victims of major offenses by juveniles, and allows victims to file court motions if their rights aren't being met.

Steinburg said Thursday that the amendment spells out victims' rights more clearly, and ensures they won't be an “afterthought” in important proceedings like plea deals. He also said that, while he hasn't heard of problems with fulfilling victims' rights in northeastern North Carolina, he's heard it's been “problematic” in other parts of the state.

In a brief email Thursday, Hunter expressed concerns that the General Assembly had proposed so many constitutional amendments this year. He opposed some but said the victim's rights amendment doesn't hurt anyone.

The region’s top prosecutor, District Attorney Andy Womble, said Thursday he strongly supports victims' rights, and his office already works to fulfill them through the state's Crime Victims' Rights Act, which currently provides more details on victims' rights than the constitution does.

However, because the amendment would expand the “universe of people” entitled to be informed and engaged during court proceedings, it will require more staff, he said.

Asked if the amendment — if approved by voters — amounts to an unfunded mandate, Womble said the General Assembly is committed to providing additional resources.

A fiscal note to H551 estimates it would cost the state another $8.8 million in 2021-22, when the state would pick up support for victim service coordinators currently funded through grants.

Notably, while H551 expands victims' rights, it also provides that violations of those rights don't create claims for monetary damages against court officials. Womble said the amendment would still have clout, however. A district attorney might be held in contempt of court or even removed from office if they persistently violated the amendment, he said.