Citizen patrol bill advances; chief justice speaks on guardianships

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January 17, 2014 - 4:27pm

Senators ended a filibuster and advanced a bill Friday aimed at helping volunteers patrol neighborhoods. And the Chief Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court urged continued efforts to reform the system of court-appointed guardians for vulnerable people.

It was Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers’ first filibuster of the year. Its target was a bill that would let members of citizen safety patrols put amber lights on their cars as they patrol neighborhoods. Chambers compared the volunteers to snitches and vigilantes.

Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha joined Chambers in objecting to a section of the bill that would require county attorneys to approve where and how the lights could be used. “This is not the purpose of our county attorneys. The purpose of our county attorneys is to be the attorney for the county and to prosecute criminal cases. We are wasting time on this bill,” Harr declared.

Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh is sponsoring the bill, which he said is simply a commonsense way of helping volunteers patrol and protect their neighborhoods. Lautenbaugh said a representative of the county attorneys had assured him they did not object. “The county attorneys are fine with this. County attorneys have anti-crime programs. This is not outside the scope of what they do. And this requires them to do very little,” he said.

After eight hours of debate stretching over a day and a half, senators voted 36-7 to end the filibuster. They then voted 25-20 to advance the bill to the next round of debate. Senators also heard the annual State of the Judiciary speech by Chief Justice Mike Heavican. In it, Heavican alluded to a scandal involving the system of court-appointed guardians who oversee the affairs of people who are unable to look after themselves.

Last fall, State Auditor Mike Foley estimated that one such guardian, Judith Widener, had misappropriated at least $35,000 from the hundreds of vulnerable clients she represented. Foley said this took place under the “not-so-watchful eyes” of the Department of Health and Human Services and the county courts.

In his speech, Heavican said the appointments had originated outside the courts. “These appointments were initiated by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, the federal Veterans Administration, family members, medical professionals and nursing homes. The accused has since resigned or been removed from the over 200 active cases for which she had been appointed to serve as guardian,” he said.

Heavican said it is important for judges, senators and others to continue working together to improve the system. Lincoln. Sen. Colby Coash has introduced legislation to hire public guardians who would serve when no suitable volunteers can be found.





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