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Lawmakers consider changes to domestic abuse laws

PIERRE | A special legislative committee is working to reshape the state's domestic abuse laws by defining dating, increasing penalties, streamlining protection orders and offering more training for judges and others.

“This topic is too serious for us to not come out with effective changes,” said Rep. Kristin Conzet, R-Rapid City.

The special committee, which met Wednesday in Pierre, was assigned by the Legislature’s Executive Board, in part at the urging of Conzet after lawmakers failed in the 2012 and 2013 to pass changes that attempted to rewrite who is covered by domestic abuse laws.

Current state laws on domestic abuse are imprecise regarding who is and isn’t covered. People living together are protected, including roommates who aren’t in a sexual relationship. But the laws don’t address people who are dating and live apart.

One subgroup of legislators from the study committee will work on rewriting those definitions. Another subgroup will look at other topics such as an enhanced penalty if domestic abuse occurs in the presence of a child. Also under consideration are steps for streamlining processes for protection and stalking orders, including those issued by tribal courts, as well as more frequent training and more financial support.

One area that likely won't be discussed is a federal law that prohibits possession of firearms by persons convicted of misdemeanors such as domestic abuse or assault against a spouse.

Committee members seemed to agree they should accept that state law can’t be changed to get around the federal ban.

The 2013 legislation, sponsored by Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, ended in a stalemate after House members decided the law shouldn’t cover same-sex couples.

Tieszen initially declined Wednesday to lead the subgroup on re-writing the definitions for who’s covered. He described himself as “toxic” on the issue.

Tieszen later agreed at the urging of the study committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Deb Soholt, R-Sioux Falls.

Among the subgroup’s members is Rep. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, who said the proposed legislation needs to be crafted with House members in mind.

“We want to make sure it gets through,” he said.

The panel held hearings last month in Aberdeen, Yankton, Sioux Falls and Rapid City and is preparing to offer a multi-piece package during the 2014 legislative session.

The committee will gather again Oct. 21 followed by the full panel discussing the proposals.

Soholt said it will be determined that day whether the committee needs to meet a final time.

Among the witnesses testifying Wednesday were Yankton Police Chief Brian Paulson and Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo.

Both urged that dating relationships be covered by state law.

Paulson said a significant number of domestic-abuse situations involving dating violence aren't reflected in crime statistics. He suggested that "intimacy" be a consideration in a definition of dating.

Vargo, a former federal prosecutor, said it might be best to tie it directly to current laws that define sexual activity.

"There is a difference between acquaintances and friends and people who are dating," Vargo said.

Defining dating won't be easy to write in law, he acknowledged, although it's somewhat easier to determine in real life: Just ask whether the person kisses or shakes hands with the other person when they meet, he said.

"The key is, try to catch as many as possible, without catching the ones that don't belong," Vargo said.

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