The 2017 Utah legislative session has come and gone, and with it new opportunities for YOUR rights to be protected or threatened. Thankfully not so much of the latter transpired. While there were some highs and some lows, looking back we feel pretty good about the way it all went down. We tracked 91 bills, an all-time high for the ACLU of Utah, and actively testified on, or otherwise meaningfully amended, around 35 of those! While voting rights stands out as a disappointment this session, other areas such as reproductive rights and criminal justice reform shine as places where the ACLU of Utah was able to make a difference. Here is the story of ten great victories, and one big disappointment.
1) Reforms to the juvenile justice system!
We worked with our community partners to pass HB 239 Juvenile Justice Amendments, legislation based on recommendations from the state’s Juvenile Justice Working Group. The legislation passed and was signed into law by the Governor. It was stripped of several meaningful provisions that we really liked – due to pressure from the schools, courts and prosecutors – but the remaining policies are still a step in the right direction.
2) Reforms to Utah’s civil asset forfeiture laws!
A compromise civil asset forfeiture reform bill, SB 87 Civil Asset Forfeiture Revisions, passed the Utah Legislature at the eleventh hour (literally! 11:58 p.m. on the last night of the session). While the measure is much more moderate than we would have preferred, the new law is substantially better than the status quo, and offers more protections for community members whose property is seized by law enforcement. Also, we worked with partners to pass SB 70 Asset Forfeiture Transparency Amendments, to expand reporting by law enforcement on civil asset forfeiture in our state.
3) Enhanced tools & protections for ensuring police accountability!
We helped pass a bill that had originally only sought to clarify that third parties could be arrested for interfering with an arrest (not just the person being arrested), but into which we inserted language that clearly states filming a police officer engaged in his/her duties does not constitute interference or resistance (SB 239 Interfering with a Peace Officer). We also helped to kill a bill that would keep the name of an officer involved in a “critical incident” hidden from the public for up to six months (HB 306 Public Safety Officer Privacy Amendments), and we worked to vastly improve a bill that addressed the nature of police body camera footage as a public record under GRAMA (HB 381 Law Enforcement Body Camera Footage).
4) No expansion of the death penalty!
We helped defeat a misguided and harmful bill, HB 176 Human Trafficking Amendments, that would have expanded Utah’s already very long list of “aggravated murder” crimes for which a person can be given the death penalty.
5) More support for people re-entering society with a criminal history!
We helped to pass a cluster of very positive “re-entry support” bills during the 2017 session. We worked with Rep. Brian King to pass HB 178 Good Landlord Program Amendments, that will prevent cities from forcing landlords to deny housing to otherwise qualified tenants who have a criminal record. We also worked to pass HB 156 State Job Application Process, a “Ban the Box” bill sponsored by Rep. Sandra Hollins, which will remove barriers to employment for people with criminal convictions, and we supported SB 12 Expungement Amendments, a bill to increase eligibility for expungements of criminal records.
6) No expansion of “Drug Free Zones”!
We worked closely with the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and the Sentencing Committee to kill two bills that would have expanded “Drug Free Zone” criminal penalty enhancements. One bill, HB 365 Homeless Resource Center Zone Amendments, sought to elevate drug crimes near a homeless shelter to a first degree felony, which in Utah carries a sentence of five years to life. We created significant social pressure for the sponsor to pull this bill, and he eventually agreed to do so.
7) Disaster averted on anti-reproductive freedom bills!
We had several wins in the reproductive freedom arena this session. Two very bad bills were significantly “neutered” by the ACLU & Planned Parenthood with support from new grassroots mobilization groups. A telehealth bill, HB 154 Telehealth Amendments, was stripped of its anti-choice language, and a “medical abortion reversal” bill, HB 141 Unborn Child Protection Amendments, was altered so doctors won’t be forced to give misinformation to women. Surprisingly, a pro-reproductive rights bill, HB 384 Abortion Clinic Licensing Amendments, from Rep. Brian King received a favorable vote in one committee hearing, but ran out of time for passage.
8) RIP “no promo homo!”
We supported successful legislation, SB 196 Health Education Amendments, to change Utah’s so-called “no promo homo” statute, which had prohibited teachers from “advocating homosexuality” in Utah classrooms. The ACLU testified about the chilling effect on teachers’ ability to openly share medically accurate information and respond to LGBTQ students’ well-intentioned questions. In a nice surprise, the bill removing this language became law!
9) Retained “diversity” as criteria in judicial appointments!
We worked with a variety of groups, both grassroots and governmental, to successfully oppose HB 93 Judicial Nominating Process Amendments, which would have removed the ability of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to consider diversity amongst other factors when putting forth judicial nominees.
10) No new attacks on immigrants and refugees – and stated support for their civil liberties!
Despite the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 2016 election and coming from the federal government since President Trump’s inauguration, the Utah legislature remained resolute in avoiding legislation that would harm or target immigrants or undocumented individuals living in Utah. We’re happy to report that there were no attempts to roll back pro-immigrant measures, such as in-state tuition for undocumented students or driving privilege cards. Not only was there an absence of bad legislation, but the legislature actually passed a resolution calling for the recognition of civil liberties and rights of all, regardless of citizenship!
Voting rights disappointment on the Hill!
Perhaps most disappointing for the ACLU of Utah was watching HB285 Voter Registration Amendments stall during the 2017 session. By 2016, after years of hard work by Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, county clerks, and voting advocates, including the ACLU of Utah, the vast majority of Utahns were able to register to vote and cast their vote on Election Day - and HB 285 would have allowed that access to continue. However, professed concerns about lines at voting places (unfairly attributed to the Election Day Registration process, rather than strong turnout and changes to available polling places) as well as partisan fears about the impacts of increased voter turnout, were sufficient to keep the Utah Legislature from continuing the program. In another blow to expanding voting rights, the Utah Legislature failed to advance HB 159 Amendments to Voter Registration, which would have made voter registration automatic when a person applies for a driver’s license, with an option to “opt-out” if registration was not necessary or appropriate.
All in all, for a year when we were prepared for the worst, your civil liberties did not fare too badly at the Utah State Legislature this Session. With new grassroots groups springing up for us to partner with, long-time progressive and conservative allies by our side, and all your financial and moral support, we were able to accomplish a great deal. And remember, our work on state policy doesn’t stop when the session officially closes, so stay tuned for updates on our work during the Legislative Interim and Special Session.
Follow our legislative work on our website at www.acluutah.org/legislation/legislative-work