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Archive for Sunday, February 6, 2005

Kline seeks tougher child-porn laws

February 6, 2005

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Kansas' top cop is asking lawmakers to make life harder for people who collect child pornography and solicit sex from children.

"It has been ignored for too long," Atty. Gen. Phill Kline said in an interview last week. "This population of predators is sophisticated, organized and predatory, and the dangers are great."

Two proposals to toughen penalties for Internet sex crimes were among the requests Kline laid out last week for the Legislature. He also wants lawmakers to give prosecutors a longer window of time to file charges and to give police broader search authority during arrests.

The ideas received mixed reviews recently in Douglas County.

Lawrence Police spokesman Sgt. Dan Ward said the proposals would help his department fight career criminals and sex predators. Dist. Atty. Charles Branson said he'd have to review them in more detail.

Defense attorney Jim George said he didn't think the changes would have much practical effect on the courts, but he said the proposal related to searches would erode civil liberties.

"That's just one less right that we have," George said.

Here's a closer look at the changes Kline wants to make:

Kline wants to change the state's child-pornography law to clarify that people caught with more than one image on a computer hard drive can be charged with one count per image.

The way the law is worded now, someone with multiple images on the same hard drive could be charged with only one count, he said.

Branson said, however, that in cases with multiple counts, the overall sentence can't be more than double the sentence for the first count.

"When you stack counts, you can only go so far," he said.

Child-solicitation law

Kline wants to make soliciting sex from a child a higher-level felony so that even people who don't have a criminal background can be sent to prison on the first offense.

He cited a case from two years ago in which police caught a Pennsylvania man who had come to Shawnee to have sex with a Hocker Grove Middle School student whom he'd met online. The man was convicted of aggravated indecent solicitation of a child, but he got probation under the state's sentencing guidelines, Kline said.

"We need to let these folks know if they get caught here, we're going to hammer them," he said.

Search authority

During an arrest, police in Kansas are allowed to search the suspect and the area within the suspect's reach for evidence of only the crime for which the person is being arrested.

For example, if they arrest someone for driving on a suspended license, they can't legally search the interior of the car for other contraband. Or if they do and find something illegal, prosecutors can't use it in court.

Kline wants to change the law so that police can look for evidence of "a" crime. He said that standard was in line with the U.S. Supreme Court's guidelines for constitutional searches.

George, the defense attorney, said that may be true, but it's still restricting Kansans' rights.

"I don't think it'll have a real big impact, but it's obviously taking away something that's there now," he said. "We're talking about searches that are being conducted without a warrant, without judicial oversight. You're taking away protection that we all enjoy."

Statute of limitations

Of all the ideas suggested by Kline, extending the statute of limitations probably would have greatest impact, George said.

In Kansas, people generally get away with a crime if prosecutors can't file charges within two years. There are some exceptions, such as for murder, which has no statute of limitations.

Kline wants to create a five-year window to mirror federal laws and the laws of other states.

Sen. John Vratil, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that at first glance, he didn't see a problem extending the window.

"The argument against it will be that as you get further and further away from the commission of the crime, the evidence is going to begin to disappear," Vratil said. "It's extremely difficult to defend oneself against an allegation about something that occurred five years before. Witnesses disappear, or their memories fade, and there's the potential to convict an innocent person."

But Kline said technological improvements, such as the increasing use of DNA evidence, were making it easier to prove crimes that are several years old.

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