The West Virginia Legislature completed its 2013 session over this past weekend. I can now breathe a sigh of relief. Legislation is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. Legislators take an oath to defend the Constitution, but I’m of the belief that they should also take an oath to adhere to the primary tenet of medical ethics, “first do no harm.”
The record regarding the session shows that there were 215 new pieces of legislation passed, one more than last year and two more than the average over the last five sessions. While laws are necessary, often they have unintended consequences and sometimes create more problems than they solve. I would rather that lawmakers do nothing than pass bad legislation, and I’m always on the lookout for legislation that infringes upon individual liberty.
On the plus side was House Bill 2463, legislation that repeals a section of the state Code that permitted the sterilization of individuals who were deemed to be mentally incompetent. I will refrain from further comment on that one. Also on the plus side, our Second Amendment rights were enhanced during this session. Although HB2580 was the big one that got away, HB2760, which created a uniform standard for Second Amendment rights across the state, was incorporated into Senate Bill 435 as an amendment. Another bill that passed, HB 2471 protects Second Amendment rights during a state of emergency.
On the negative side is SB604, a bill that expands the definition of “electioneering communication.” On the surface, this legislation pretends to be a simple disclosure bill, but in reality it undermines the right to privacy, free speech and freedom of association. In effect, the bill redefines advocacy groups dedicated to issues as political action groups during certain time frames around elections, requiring that they turn over their membership lists and finances to the government. According to one legislator that I spoke to, West Virginians for Life, the NRA and the ACLU all worked to defeat the bill. It isn’t often that these three organizations will agree on something. In my humble opinion, this bill is intended to have a chilling effect on free speech, and may infringe on First Amendment rights. It breezed through the Senate 34-0, but the vote was close in the House of Delegates, passing by a narrow 52 to 47 margin.
Another bill that infringes on individual liberties is HB2513 called “improving enforcement of drugged driving offences.” This bill allows for your arrest during a routine traffic stop “whenever a law enforcement officer has reasonable cause to believe” that you have violated the law against “drugged driving.” What constitutes “reasonable cause to believe” is not defined, nor am I satisfied with the definition of drugged driving. According to the bill, drugged driving involves the use of “controlled substances” and/or legal prescription drugs as defined in Chapter 60-A of the state Code. However, that section of the Code includes the entire pharmacopeia as part of its definition. Further, the law states that you have given your consent to allow the blood test simply by operating a motor vehicle in the West Virginia. Once you have been arrested and charged with drugged driving you have the option to submit to a blood test or forfeit your driving privileges. In other words, you are guilty until proven innocent. I can see it now— “drugged driving” checkpoints along the highways, syringes ready to extract the blood of unsuspecting drivers on the way home from the movies on a Saturday night.
Several bills that never made it out of committee sought to prevent the federal government from infringing upon the constitutional rights of West Virginians. One concerned Real ID, a federal program to create a national database containing our personal information. Real ID requires cooperation on the state level and works through your driver’s license to provide a key to tie together all our personal information that resides in databases at various governmental agencies. If you are female and have tried to renew your driver’s license recently, chances are you already understand why Real ID is a problem.
There were other bills aimed at curbing federal overreach that never made it out of committee and I believe that the leadership in both houses is out of touch regarding this issue. According to the Public Broadcasting network this past January, a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that “a whopping 73 percent” of Americans do not trust the federal government “to do the right thing always or most of the time.” Our state legislators had that opportunity this past session and didn’t deliver so it’s “wait until next year,” and next year is an election year.