Proposed Immunity for Crime Victims or Witnesses, Tax Credits for Parents of Stillborn Children Heard

Feb. 5, 2021, 4:48 p.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Victims or witnesses of sexual assault or other violent crimes would not be prosecuted if they were breaking drug or alcohol rules at the time, under proposals heard by the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee Friday. And the Revenue Committee held a hearing on a proposed tax credit for parents of stillborn children.

Two similar bills, by Sens. Carol Blood and Adam Morfeld, would say people could not be prosecuted for drug or alcohol offenses they committed around the time they saw or witnessed sexual assault or otherwise violent crimes.

Morfeld said they’re trying to remove people’s fear of coming forward.

“What we don’t want them to do is be drinking or on drugs or something like that and go ‘Well, I can’t report that because they’re going to start asking me questions about what I was doing there, and there’s people there that saw me using alcohol and drugs and if I tell them who’s there then they’ll say that I was using alcohol and drugs which is true and then they won’t report it,” Morfeld said.

University of Nebraska- Lincoln sophomore Brooklyn Terrill supported the proposals. She told about an incident that happened soon after she arrived for her first year of college.

“One of my friends randomly showed up at my dorm. She had woken up in a fraternity house with little recollection of the night before, confused and terrified. She didn’t remember what had happened or how she had gotten there, and when she asked the boy about what had happened, all he responded with was ‘Nothing, and if you tell anyone about it, you will get in trouble for drinking.’ Because of what he said she decided to do nothing. She moved on and tried to pretend it didn’t happen,” Terrill said.

Corey O’Brien of the Nebraska attorney general’s office opposed the bill. He said prosecutors already use their discretion to not prosecute victims, and putting that into law could backfire. O’Brien suggested it could open up victims of sexual assault or human trafficking to assaults on their credibility by lawyers defending those who had victimized them. And he said it’s better for victims to leave it up to prosecutors to decide on agreeing not to prosecute.

“The jury gets to see that information that the victim and the witness have given us has been vetted by law enforcement as well as by the prosecutors, and it also lays out the terms of their agreement. By giving them blanket immunity statutorily and without that vetting process and without being able to lay the terms of that agreement out before a jury, it substantially impacts our ability to successfully prosecute the human traffickers and to defend the reliability and the credibility of our victims and our cases,” O’Brien said.

But Spike Eickholt, testifying neutral on the bill for the Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said he thinks the current system is more favorable to defense attorneys, not the victims or witnesses O’Brien said he was trying to protect.

“I think frankly the current system now lets us use it more effectively. In other words I can’t question a witness about criminal histories and things like that. I can question a witness about their testimony if they’re somehow given an inducement to testify a certain way. In other words, if a person is charged with a crime and the charges are dismissed with the agreement that they have to testify against my client, I can question that witness all about them to impugn and attack their credibility. But if a witness is not even gonna be charged, if a witness has not even committed a crime, then I can’t go into that,” Eickholt said.

And Morfeld, whose district includes a lot of college students, said they don’t trust prosecutors not to charge them if they’ve been drinking or using drugs.

“These are real barriers to young people reporting serious crimes that have occurred to them, like sexual assault. And I don’t think most students are going to be thinking ‘Man, gee, I should go down there and hopefully the prosecutor will give me the benefit of the doubt. We’ll see. Fingers crossed.’ That’s absurd,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the proposals.

Also Friday, the Revenue Committee heard a proposal by Sen. Joni Albrecht to give a $2,000 tax credit to the parents of any stillborn child who had reached 20 weeks gestation. Albrecht said medical expenses for stillbirths are typically higher than for live births, and there are other financial costs.

“Families have added expenses such as paying for a funeral, burial, grief counseling, and loss of income from time taken off of work,” Albrecht said.

With about 150 stillbirths per year, the bill is estimated to cost the state about $300,000 in taxes that would not be collected. It was supported by opponents of abortion including Sandy Danek, executive director of Nebraska Right to Life, who said she and her husband have gone through the experience of her giving birth to a stillborn baby.

“It was remarkable how perfectly formed and beautiful she was. We spent time with her as a couple and found it hard to say goodbye when the time came. It had a dramatic impact on us and was the impetus for becoming involved in the pro-life movement,” Danek said.

No one spoke against the proposal, although the Open Sky Policy Institute submitted written testimony in opposition to creating yet another tax credit, and the Platte Institute was neutral, saying lowering tax costs for targeted groups raises them for non-favored groups. The committee took no immediate action.