Sept. 30, 2004 – Law and order seemed the theme of the day Thursday as the 25th Legislature unanimously approved three historic bills that will forever change the face of justice in the territory.
Senators moved to adopt the Omnibus Justice Act of 2004, the V.I. Homeland Security Act and the "long-awaited" legislation establishing the V.I. Supreme Court.
The senators wasted no time to vote on the compelling legislation after fine-tuning them with several amendments.
Omnibus and Homeland Security Acts
Sen. Lorraine Berry sponsored both the Omnibus Justice Act of 2004 and the V.I. Homeland Security, which underwent months of intensive scrutiny and review in committee after committee.
Telling her colleagues it would "set the tone" for the territorial justice system, Berry urged her colleagues to vote with her for the establishing of the Omnibus Justice Act.
The Omnibus Justice Act establishes the creation of the controversial Law Enforcement Review Commission, providing residents with a venue to report misconduct of law enforcement officials. The V.I. Police Department and the police unions have both voiced their displeasure at the review commission, stating that an Internal Affairs Bureau is already in place. (See "Police Oppose Provisions of Law Enforcement 'Omnibus Act'").
The bill was amended to require that the nine nominees for the commission must be confirmed by the Legislature and to authorize the territory to join the Interstate Compact for Supervision of Adult Offenders. The compact allows for the supervision of parole subjects across states. Currently, Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands are the only jurisdictions not part of the compact.
Sen. Louis Hill also made an amendment instituting a fine of $1,000 and one-year imprisonment for the misuse of government-issued credit cards.
"This amendment seeks to prohibit the use of government credit cards for personal use," Hill said, making reference to statements in the media concerning an audit released from the U.S. Department of Interior this week, which indicated that individuals in semi-autonomous agencies of the government were abusing the credit cards. (See "Officials Living Large off Government Credit Cards ").
Sen. Ronald Russell also made an amendment increasing the fines of the "tint laws" (referring to dark tint applied to car windows, making it difficult for police officers to identify occupants inside), as established in the act, to $200 on a first violation, from $200-$500 on a second violation and from $500-$1,000 on a third violation with the suspension of the individual's driver's license for not more than one year.
"This violation is so dangerous that this message has to be sent in a strong way," Sen. Almando Liburd objected, adding that the fines should be stiffer. But Russell appeased him saying since the laws are new to the residents they needed a gradual increase in fees, and later on they could be stiffened if the situation were still a problem.
The Homeland Security Act, which establishes a territorial director of Homeland Security, was amended to set forth the qualifications of the director. The bill mandates the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency to handle all manmade and natural disasters, leaving all acts of terrorism to the Homeland Security Office. The bill also transfers "Hazmat" for hazardous materials from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to the V.I. Fire Services.
V.I. Supreme Court
History was made Thursday afternoon as the Senate unanimously approved the adoption of the V.I. Supreme Court legislation.
"I am the vehicle that drove the Supreme Court legislation," proud sponsor Sen. Carlton Dowe said, as he proceeded to toot his own horn.
The Virgin Islands is the only territory/state of the United States that does not have its own Supreme Court. Its appeals are handed on the federal level through the District Court of the Virgin Islands.
About 20 years ago, the federal government had granted the territory the right to adopt its own Supreme Court. However the V.I. government had never acted on that right until now.
Dowe told his colleagues to ask themselves why the territory is still without a Supreme Court "20-odd years" when other territories like Guam have long set up their Supreme Courts.
"Today is historic," Dowe told his colleagues. "Be a part of this specific piece of legislation, creating this history."
Russell commended Dowe for sponsoring the legislation, which he had tried but failed to pass in the 24th Legislature.
"Put the Supreme Court in Frederiksted, St. Croix," Russell said, looking out for his constituents.
Sen. Celestino White said he hoped they weren't just "chasing a mirage somewhere in the desert" because the legislation does not establish a time frame for establishing the court, nor does it appropriate funds for start up.
The Senators voted unanimously to adopt the Supreme Court after approving an amendment by Dowe establishing quorum rules for the nominated judges.
"I am convinced that the Supreme Court legislation is needed to help the judicial branch assist the people of the territory," Sen. Roosevelt David said.
Gov. Charles Turnbull also pledged his support to the bill, which will soon come before him.
Turnbull stated in a release, "This administration continues to advocate forward progress in the territory's political development, and the establishment of the V.I. Supreme Court represents a giant step forward."
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