Immunity from prostitution charges advances; Supreme Court declines marijuana lawsuit; cigarette taxes come up short

Nebraska lawmakers debating Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 21, 2016 - 7:15pm

The Nebraska Legislature continued to wrestle with treating prostitutes as criminals or victims of human trafficking; officials reacted to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declining to hear the state’s case against Colorado over marijuana, and a proposed cigarette tax increase is dead for this year.


The proposal dealing with prostitution and human trafficking was introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks. It would say that someone who engages in prostitution as a direct result of being a victim of human trafficking, she or he would be immune from prosecution. Pansing Brooks said the change would enable prostitutes to get services, free from the need for being bailed out of jail by their pimps. "We are talking about victims who are tortured, who are abused. This is a despicable crime," she said.

Sen. Burke Harr said the change proposed by Pansing Brooks would eliminate leverage that prosecutors can use to get prostitutes help in prosecuting pimps and traffickers. Harr agreed that trafficking victims should not be revictimized. "But what we don’t want is for every person out there whether a victim of sex trafficking or not ‘Hey, I’m a victim of sex trafficking’ okay, (the) officer looks at it and says ‘Yep, you’re immune, see you later, go on your way,’" he said.

Harr tried to get senators to change the bill and clarify that a judge, not a police officer, would decide whether someone is a victim of trafficking. But he withdrew the proposal when its constitutionality was questioned. Senators then gave Pansing Brook’s proposal second round approval on a voice vote. It will require one more vote of approval before being sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Also Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge from Nebraska to Colorado’s legalization of marijuana. The challenge, in which Nebraska was joined by Oklahoma, was filed by former Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning shortly before he left office last December, and has been pursued by current Attorney General Doug Peterson. They have argued that Colorado’s legalization contradicts federal law and puts increased pressure on law enforcement in neighboring states.

The high court declined to take up the case without comment. But the Obama administration had argued that the court should not take it up, because it amounted to arguing that one state's laws make it more likely that people will violate the law in another state.

Peterson said he was disappointed in the court’s decision, but suggested it was not the final word. "The general rule is that when states sue one another, they should originally try to file that in U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court indicated that they wouldn’t take that original jurisdiction. So our next option would be going to federal district court," he said.

In the Legislature, Sen. Ernie Chambers ridiculed the premise of the lawsuit and the prospect that it would be continued. Are "they going to be fools and jackasses twice?" he asked. "Ultimately, they’re gonna wind up back at the Supreme Court, telling the Supreme Court ‘Make Colorado stop doing what they’re doing because we in Oklahoma and Nebraska can’t take care of what’s happening in Nebraska and Oklahoma.’"

Peterson said there are still legitimate concerns about marijuana coming into Nebraska from Colorado. "The law enforcement costs, but just also there’s a real concern as citizens of Nebraska that we see more and more of this product, and it’s a stronger product that we’ve ever seen before, and it’s in our school systems and our younger people are being exposed to it," he said.

Peterson said he’ll probably decide whether or not to pursue the lawsuit in the next two or three weeks.

And the Revenue Committee has rejected a proposal by Sen. Mike Gloor to increase the cigarette tax by $1.50, from its current 64 cents a pack. Gloor had proposed splitting the estimated $120 million such an increase would raise, between causes including health spending and property tax relief.

Gloor noted that Nebraska’s current cigarette tax is 40th highest in the nation. "Nebraska will continue to remain one of the most profitable state’s for the tobacco industry. And that may be great for their profitability, but it doesn’t help us cover some of our own health care expenses, reduce youth smoking, or have some additional dollars, significant dollars, to use towards property tax relief," Gloor said. "So the winner is Big Tobacco.

The tobacco industry had argued that increases in other states have fallen short of delivering the dollars they promised. After rejecting an amend that would have redistributed those dollars, the committee voted 6-2 against advancing Gloor’s proposal.

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