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Currently, the court has the discretion to accept or reject the terms of a plea bargain. In addition, the court is required to inquire if the state attorney has informed the victim's family of a plea bargain and if a victim impact statement has been submitted. If a victim impact statement has been submitted, the court is required to request a copy. However, the court is not required to read the victim impact statement.
In the case of a peace officer dying as a result of criminal conduct, HB 281 grants the right of one immediate family member to make an oral statement before the court prior to the court's acceptance of a plea bargain. This legislation also requires the attorney representing the state to inform the victim's family of the existence and terms of a plea bargain and the right of one family member to make an oral statement. This statement is meant to convey whether or not the peace officer's family supports the terms of the plea bargain and to serve as a victim impact statement.
HB 281 requires the court to consider the statement made by the victim's family member prior to sentencing. In addition, the defendant or the defendant's counsel is allowed to cross-examine the victim's family member that provided the oral statement, comment on the oral statement, and, with permission of the court, introduce testimony or information alleging factual inaccuracy in the oral statement. The court is also required to inform the victim's family member of the defendant's rights prior to the oral statement.
The right of an oral statement granted by HB 281 is in addition to any written victim impact statement and does not preclude written victim impact statements.
HB 281 is a step in the right direction. Giving a victim's family the right to voice their opinion on a plea bargain places a greater emphasis on the victim of the crime and empowers the victim's family. By allowing an oral statement, the victim's family is given the ability to confront the defendant. In addition, the oral statement gives the judge another perspective to consider as the plea bargain is evaluated.
While we support this legislation, our primary concern is that the oral statement requirement is restricted to crimes involving the death of a peace officer. This requirement should be broadened to cover any plea bargain where the defendant is criminally responsible for the death of another person. Also, the provision in this bill allowing the cross-examination of the victim's family member is problematic. The victim's family member is presenting an opinion on the plea bargain and a victim impact statement, not evidence or testimony. Cross-examination of the victim's family member is unnecessary because this bill allows the defense to comment on the oral statement and present testimony and information to counter the oral statement.