February 1, 2019

Bill to raise penalty for school threats blocked

Laura Paskus

The divide over how best to punish those who threaten to commit violence in schools widened Thursday, as a panel of Democrats blocked a bill to make the crime a fourth-degree felony.

Rep. Randal Crowder, R-Clovis, said he introduced House Bill 115 to create a specific crime for leveling terrorist threats at a school or other public building. He said it would be a means of deterring juveniles and adults alike from feeling emboldened in targeting schools.

Democrats countered that his bill was so broad it could turn teens who do something stupid into felons for life.

More important, a legislative staff analysis of Crowder’s proposal found that the state already has other laws that can be used to prosecute people who make threats.

Crowder told the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee of fallout in 2017 when a 16-year-old boy opened fire at the Clovis public library, killing two people and wounding four others. Afterward, Crowder said, copycat criminals escalated fears with “numerous terroristic threats, via texts, via phone calls.”

Schools “had to empty out” because of those threats, Crowder said. Parents then went into a panic mode as they scrambled to find out if their kids were in danger, he said.

But Democrats who control the five-member committee were not swayed.

They said language in Crowder’s bill was faulty, and that a felony charge in every circumstance could hurt a teen’s reputation for life.

Democrats tabled the bill on a 3-2 party-line vote.

“I’m absolutely disappointed,” Crowder said. “I’ve got to take a deep breath and figure out what to do next. I’m incredibly sad.”

But a legislative staff analysis of his bill found that Crowder was trying to enact a new law for conduct that already is illegal.

“Although New Mexico currently does not have a general statute addressing terrorist threats, the state has a number of criminal statutes that can be used to address threats,” the analysis stated. “For example, the general assault statute prohibits any threat or menacing conduct which causes another person to reasonably believe that he is in danger of receiving an immediate battery.”

One prosecutor still testified that there is a need for Crowder’s bill.

Rick Tedrow is a district attorney in San Juan County, where a 21-year-old man opened fire at Aztec High School in 2017, killing two students and then taking his own life.

Creating a fourth-degree felony charge for making terrorist threats, he said, might stop a wave of copycats from targeting schools. A fourth-degree felony carries punishment of up to 18 months in prison, a fine of up to $5,000 or both.

“We are not talking one or two [threats]. We are talking day after day, week after week,” Tedrow said of the aftermath of the Aztec High tragedy.

Rep. Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, said she found flaws in the bill and couldn’t support it.

“I agree with the intent but this legislation is just too broad,” she said.

A similar bill introduced by Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, was scheduled to be heard in the Senate Public Affairs Committee on Thursday evening.