March 10, 2022

Guv signs omnibus crime bill 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an  omnibus crime bill into law on Wednesday, which officials say will reduce crime.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat seeking reelection in November, pushed a “tough on crime” agenda during the 2022 Legislative session. Lawmakers rolled several crime bills into one to create the omnibus bill, which increases penalties for violent offenders. State House Rep. Meredith Dixon, D-Santa Fe, sponsored HB 68. The new law will also eliminate “gay panic” defense in criminal cases.

Dixon said through a news release that the law will “reduce dangerous crime.”

“Enhanced penalties, together with investments in addressing the underlying causes of crime, will help us make our communities safer both now and in the long-term,” she said through the release. 

In addition to strengthening penalties for gun crimes and eliminating the statute of limitations for second degree murder, the law also eliminates a criminal defense that an individual committed a violent crime due to the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

Legislators introduced bills to eliminate the “gay panic” defense in prior years. During the 2021 session, the bill, sponsored by state Senator Jacob Candelaria, I-Albuquerque, passed the Senate unanimously with bipartisan support but it stalled on the House floor in the final days of the Legislature.

Marshall Martinez, executive director of Equality New Mexico, said the fact that the issue got through the legislature this year as an amendment to the omnibus crime bill meant the bill got very little public attention and that means less violence toward LGBTQ+ individuals.

“The upside to that, for me, is there hadn’t been much debate on this bill [amendment] but every time we talk policy, violence [against LGBTQ+ people] goes up. When we talk about hate crimes, violence goes up on queer and trans people,” Marshall said.

He said it also prevented LGBTQ+ individuals from having to listen to painful debates.

“This spared so many in our community from having to listen to a debate about whether we’re deserving or not of added protections,” Martinez said.

The “gay panic” defense elimination is mostly the same as the bill that Candelaria sponsored last year, but Martinez said the language was modified to ensure that a person can still claim self-defense in criminal cases if the victim is LGBTQ+ individual.

“But you can’t say as evidence now ‘I didn’t know he was gay until it happened and I panicked and I assaulted him because he was gay,’” Martinez said.

One of the most famous uses of “gay panic” defense was during the murder trial for the men who killed Wyoming resident Matthew Shepard in 1998 but the judge threw it out.

Martinez said one of the most important aspects of eliminating “gay panic” defense into legal code is that it sends a clear message to LGBTQ+ youth.

“As a matter of policy we think folks deserve access to justice no matter who they are and it should not be excusable to harm someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. This sends a clear message to queer and trans youth that our humanity is not conditional to our identities. It says to LGBTQ youth very clearly you don’t deserve violence just because you are queer or trans,” he said.

Martinez said he can’t say if violence against LGBTQ+ individuals has gone up or down in recent years because the Federal Bureau of Investigation collects demographic data from law enforcement and creates reports but the most recent FBI data dates to violence against LGBTQ+ individuals in years 2016-2018.

Martinez said law enforcement are also not trained enough to always recognize when a crime is against an LGBTQ+ individual or know how to ask the right questions of the victim.

But crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals impacts the entire LGBTQ+ community, Martinez said.

The omnibus crime law also enhances death benefits to families of officers killed in the line of duty to $1 million; creates criminal statutes relating to violent threats, property damage and chop shops; increases penalties for firearm possession for individuals with felony records and for the use of a firearm in the commission of  a felony crime; establishes programs to recruit and retail law enforcement officers, accompanied by $50 million in the budget to establish an officer recruitment fund; eliminates the statute of limitation for second degree murder; establishes the Violence Intervention Program Act, accompanied by $9 million in the budget to establish violence intervention programs statewide and allocates $2 million for crime reduction grants.

Lujan Grisham lauded the bill on Wednesday through the release.

“House Bill 68 expands upon the transformational work we’ve done in previous years, strengthening our state’s public safety system and making streets safer in every New Mexico community,” she said.