A bill to crack down on gangs, making it harder for them to operate and to recruit members, was approved Thursday by the Senate’s committees on Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice, sending it on for further consideration by the Rules Committee.
The Public Safety Committee met Thursday morning to consider three bills. The first, Bill No. 29-0018, an act establishing the "Virgin Islands Criminal Street Gang Prevention Act," was the only one of the three to be sent on to Rules. If approved by Rules, it will go to the full Senate.
The committee tabled a bill that would establish the jurisdiction of the Virgin Islands Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and did not have time to take up the third, a bill creating a Comprehensive Crime and Public Health Task Force.
Testifying in favor of the gang bill, Police Commissioner Henry White Jr. said it is badly needed. Police try to track and crack down on gang-related criminal activity, but until now, there hasn’t been a legal definition of what that means, he said.
"With the Department of Education, the Department of Human Services, the Bureau of Corrections and the police in the British Virgin Islands, we are developing a comprehensive database of gangs and gang activities," he said. "But courts require a legal definition."
Deputy Attorney General Bruce Marshack also testified in favor of the bill. He said the administration favors the legislation because of the need to combat gangs in the territory’s neighborhoods.
"Most apparent and of utmost concern is the rise in violence being played out on our streets," Marshack said, "which is symptomatic of rise of street-gang activity in our territory."
He also voiced appreciation for the fact that the bill makes the unlawful activity of a gang, not mere association with one, the focus of the bill.
Marshack offered a list of other potential tweaks and wording changes that would help the 16-page bill focus on gang activity and steer clear of potential constitutional and other issues.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes, the committee chairman and author of the bill, thanked Marshack for his input and said he would incorporate those changes before the bill is taken up by the Rules Committee.
Bill No. 29-0244, the bill to establish the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, reopened a recent wound between the legislature and the governor’s office, stemming from Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s 2008 decision to disband what was then known as the Drug Enforcement Bureau.
Over the governor’s veto, the 28th Legislature passed a measure creating a new Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. DeJongh’s objections at the time included the argument that the bill failed to provide any funding for the agency.
Bill No. 29-0244 specifies that the bureau is responsible, among other things, for all drug and narcotic laws applicable to the territory, the prosecution of all violations of drug and narcotic laws, and the investigation of all drug crimes and capture of all people engaged in drug crimes.
In prepared testimony, Marshack reminded the senators the executive branch objects to the Senate’s creation of the department in the first place, and pointed out that the Senate still has not provided any funding other than to place the bureau under the Police Department for budgetary purposes, suggesting that the governor fund the bureau out of money already designated for the police.
"Without funding, the bureau cannot perform the duties and functions mandated," he said.
Marshack said that by designating the bureau as the primary prosecutorial authority in drug crimes, the bill would undermine the Attorney General’s Office, which has that authority under the Virgin Islands Code.
"Granting two separate local agencies prosecutorial authority over a particular class of crimes will inevitably create confusion in the criminal justice system of the Virgin Islands," Marshack said. "Moreover, no justification has been provided for the removal of the Office of the Attorney General as the prosecutorial authority over drug crimes. We are not aware of any allegations of corruption or any wrongdoing involving drug dealers or traffickers and their association with the Office of the Attorney General. If the members of this Legislature are aware of such instances, please let us know."
Sanes countered with a legal opinion from the Senate’s legal counsel arguing that the governor is not empowered to disband an agency created by the legislature, specifically the drug enforcement bureau, on his own authority. Only an act of the Senate can disband a department created by the Senate.
Marshack said the administration has "made great progress in removing the stigma which was attached to the former Narcotic Strike Force/Bureau of Drug Enforcement," which he said had become "a blight" on the reputation of the local law enforcement community, but that the bill would mandate the reinstatement of the people "who created problems for prior drug enforcement agency."
According to Marshack, the U.S. Department of Justice was poised to take action against the agency when deJongh disbanded it in 2008, and if the measure passed and was enforced, relying on the same people, the same thing would likely happen again.
At Sanes’ suggestion, the bill was tabled indefinitely.