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Marsy's Law takes effect Thursday; local law enforcement, city attorneys prepare for changes

FARGO--A new North Dakota constitutional amendment protecting the rights of crime victims takes effect on Thursday, Dec. 8, but local law enforcement agencies say there is still more to learn about implementing the law.

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FARGO-A new North Dakota constitutional amendment protecting the rights of crime victims takes effect on Thursday, Dec. 8, but local law enforcement agencies say there is still more to learn about implementing the law.

City attorneys from Fargo and West Fargo, and Cass County state's attorneys met with police chiefs and sheriffs on Tuesday, Dec. 6, to review Marsy's Law, the initiated measure voters overwhelmingly passed on Nov. 8. Officials said there will be ongoing discussions between court and law enforcement officials on how to stay in compliance with Marsy's Law as everyone becomes familiar with new facets of the amendment.

Jack McDonald, a lawyer who represents the North Dakota Newspaper Association, said earlier that information about a crime, such as a fire, accident or robbery, would not be restricted under the new law.

The privacy restriction in Marsy's Law does not apply to information about crimes that is routinely made public, McDonald said. This interpretation is shared by Lacee Anderson, a Bismarck lawyer and Marsy's Law advocate, and Fargo City Attorney Erik Johnson.

"As terms of the standard practice of law enforcement of disclosing basic elements of crime and the location, I don't think there's any change in that," Johnson said. "We don't see that as changing in any significant way."

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Johnson said Marsy's Law "does create this authority of a victim to prevent certain disclosure of information," but he said they would have to deal with that when it happens.

"Things seem to be coming together," Johnson said. "Initially, there were a lot of questions. Since the election, through conversation with police ... you kind of work your way through some of the questions. I think we're gaining some comfort."

In South Dakota, where voters also approved Marsy's Law on Nov. 8, law enforcement interpreted the victims' rights law to mean they would be required to close public access to accident records and the addresses of criminal incidents. But Attorney General Marty Jackley clarified in an official opinion on Monday, Dec. 5, that the new law does not stop agencies from releasing such information.

The North Dakota Attorney General's Office has not received a request for an opinion on how Marsy's Law will affect the public release of crime victim information, Spokeswoman Liz Brocker said. She said cities and public agencies in the state have their own attorneys who can interpret the law.

Cass County State's Attorney Birch Burdick said his office will be doing its best to comply with its understanding of Marsy's Law, which he interprets as still allowing prosecutors and the press access to information.

"We need to make sure the defense attorney has access to information so they can figure out how to prosecute the case," Burdick said. He anticipates including the address of where a crime occurred in reports to help the court understand that his office has jurisdiction to handle a case.

But the telephone number and address of a victim, which he said isn't normally available in his office's reports, will be confidential under the new law.

Typically when a crime or accident occurs, the press contacts law enforcement to get information, including names and an address where the incident occurred. A provision of the new law could require agencies to not disclose identifying information of the victim.

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Burdick said he believes law enforcement wants to continue providing that information for the media to make "relevant reports," but it's up to the department to figure out how they will handle releasing that information.

"The public needs information and it's the media's job to help provide that information," he said. For example, the public needs to know enough about a crime so they are aware of areas in town that could be more "problematic," he said.

West Fargo Police Chief Mike Reitan said he was looking to gain more insight on privacy protection for victims during a meeting with City Attorney Lukas Croaker on Wednesday, Dec. 7, just a day before the law takes effect.

"We need to make sure we have a full understanding of what that means and within the open records law here in North Dakota, where there appears to be some conflict," Reitan said.

West Fargo is continuing to develop guidelines on dealing with what information can be released and what information will need to be redacted, he said. Reitan and Croaker could not be reached for comment after Wednesday's meeting.

While it may take some time to work through interpretations of the privacy provisions in Marsy's Law, just as it's still playing out in South Dakota, other aspects of the amendment are more concrete.

Johnson said the law, at first glance, is lengthy with 20 or more rights identified. But when they're distilled, he said there are general concepts such as a victim's right to be included in court proceedings and the rights to an array of notifications.

Under the new law, victims have the right to be notified of developments in criminal cases, changes to offenders' custodial status and scheduled release.

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Another form of notification that will be a change for law enforcement agencies is handing out a card or pamphlet to victims that lists North Dakota constitutional rights for crime victims, and community services that are available, such as SAVIN, an automated victim notification system. Johnson said some of that information could also be made available through a website.

Burdick expects Marsy's Law to be an "unfolding implementation," and all agencies involved will continue conversations on the new constitutional amendment.

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