Senate committee OKs bills defining crimes of home invasion, interference with peace officer


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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. Senate's Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety Committee moved forward two bills Tuesday pertaining to crime and held a third that would affect the requirements for purchasing firearms locally.

Of the two crimes bills that advanced, the first, Bill 30-0025, is an act sponsored by Sen. Diane Capehart that would amend the V.I. Code to create a new category of crime termed home invasion.

The second piece of legislation, Bill 30-0047, is an act sponsored by Sen. Judi Buckley to provide a clearer definition for the crime of interfering with an officer discharging his duty.

The bill that was held, Bill 30-0103, is legislation sponsored by Senator Kenneth Gittens that would require that applicants for a firearm provide a psychological evaluation and a background check.

The two bills that will advance to the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee received a vote of 4-0 from the committee members present, Senators Kenneth Gittens, Buckley, Craig Barshinger and Sammuel Sanes.

Senators Alicia Hansen, Clarence Payne III and Tregenza Roach were absent.

Home invasion

Under the bill, home invasion is defined as a when a person enters another's home knowing that one or more persons are present and uses force or threatens force; uses a firearm or threatens to use a firearm; or causes injury in some other way.

The bill includes a list of recommended penalties that would follow the violation of the V.I. Home Invasion Act:

- If the crime was committed by someone armed with a dangerous weapon other than a firearm, or if an injury was caused by the crime, the penalty would be a term of imprisonment no fewer than 10 years and no more than 15.

- A term of imprisonment of no fewer than 15 years and no more than 20 would apply if the perpetrator was armed with a firearm during the crime.

- If a firearm was discharged, regardless of whether it caused injury during a home invasion, a conviction would lead to a term of imprisonment of no fewer than 20 years and no more than 25.

- If a firearm discharged and caused great bodily harm or death to another person within the home at the time of the crime, a conviction would lead to a term of imprisonment of no fewer than 25 years and no more than 30.

While the V.I. Police Department and the V.I. Attorney General's Office backed the bill, the V.I. Public Defender's Office did not. Attorney General Vincent Frazer said that he initially was skeptical of the bill when the committee first reviewed it in January because he felt that it might be redundant to what was stated in the V.I. Code in addressing both burglary and assault.

Since then, he said, he changed his mind.

"It is one thing to break and enter a commercial building or some other non-residential structure. However, when it comes to a structure that is a dwelling house or a known residential building, then that will get a different treatment under the law," Frazer stated in testimony shared before the committee Tuesday.

However, Territorial Public Defender Samuel Joseph maintained that the legislation is redundant and the government runs the risk of overcharging defendants.

Capehart responded that she was open to making changes to the bill, which was not perfect, she said.

Interfering with an officer

The bill maintains that no person should interfere with the official capacity of a peace officer, which would include a firefighter, emergency responder, investigators with the Attorney General's Office, University of the Virgin Islands security guards and other officials.

Joseph also opposed that bill, stating that it is "overbroad and thus unconstitutional," he said in a prepared statement before the committee.

"A person could be found to have violated the statute for failing to comply with some menial request depending on who it is coming from," Joseph said.

Police Commissioner Rodney Querrard Sr. and Frazer testified in support of the bill.

Firearm bill

The bill would require applicants for firearms to have "provided a complete psychological evaluation and background check procured at the applicant's cost which establishes that applicant mentally stable and fit to carry a firearm."

It also amends the current language addressing storage of firearms to require that firearms are stored in a secured safe, gun safe, lockbox or other device that can be used to store a firearm. "Such device shall be secured with a keyed or combination, tamper resistant lock," the bill reads.

While testimony was not given regarding the bill on Tuesday, the bill received the support of the Attorney General's Office, according to prepared testimony submitted to the committee prior to the postponement of the bill's discussion.

"Clearly, this new requirement is a good thing. However, we recommend that the bill should indicate that the evaluation be made by a licensed psychologist or licensed psychiatrist. The proposed amendment also received the support of a local, licensed clinical psychologist, Denese Marshall.

"In recent months, we have witnessed several incidents in the United States that have involved mentally unstable individuals who have gained access to high power weapons that eventually injured and killed many innocent people, including children," Marshall wrote in a letter to the committee.

However, attorney Michael Sheesley, also the owner of Tactical Arms, a federal firearms license-holder in the territory, argued in his submitted testimony that the proposed amendment would be redundant because the V.I. Code already prohibits people who have been determined to be mentally defective, or who have been committed to a mental institution, from possessing firearms.

Additionally, the application for a firearm already requires applicants to provide a police record, he said in his submitted testimony.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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