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AG pushes terrorism package for session

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Hector Balderas

SANTA FE – With the memory of a mass shooting in El Paso still fresh, New Mexico lawmakers could consider an anti-domestic terrorism package in the upcoming legislative session that would amend several existing laws and possibly create new crimes, including one dealing with cyber terrorism.

Though details are still being fleshed out, a top official in Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office told members of a legislative panel on Friday that several proposals aimed at domestic terrorism are being crafted.

“We really need a broad update of these laws,” said Clara Moran, the chief deputy attorney general for criminal affairs, after testifying before the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee at the Roundhouse.

It will ultimately be up to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to decide whether to add legislation dealing with domestic terrorism to the agenda of the 30-day session that starts in January, and a spokesman told the Journal the Governor’s Office is “hoping” to do so.

A final decision will likely be made based on whether lawmakers and the Attorney General’s office can reach a general consensus on the domestic terrorism package in the coming weeks, Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.

“If we do get something to that effect, it’s fair to say it would be a priority item,” Stelnicki said.

The impetus for changing New Mexico’s criminal justice laws came out of an August domestic terrorism summit convened by Lujan Grisham that included the attorney general, other top state officials, county sheriffs and lawmakers.

The first-term Democratic governor organized the summit after a mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 people dead. The 21-year-old allegedly responsible for carrying out the attack reportedly wanted to target people of Mexican descent.

Among the anti-domestic terrorism proposals that could come before lawmakers during the session that starts in January are proposed changes to the state’s hate crimes law and electronic privacy act, Moran said.

Specifically, the changes to the hate crimes law could include stiffer criminal penalties. Under the state’s criminal code, a one-year extension can currently be tacked onto the prison sentence for most felony offenders if their crime is proved to be motivated by the victim’s race, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation.

But prosecutors say that is often difficult to prove in a courtroom and, as a result, the hate crimes law has been rarely used in New Mexico.

While it’s unclear if the package would include multiple bills or a single omnibus bill, the overall changes being considered could give New Mexico law enforcement agencies more tools to investigate potential domestic terrorists, especially via social media postings and online chat rooms, backers say.

However, several lawmakers voiced concerns that creating new crimes and giving prosecutors and law enforcement broader leeway could, if not done carefully, impact free speech and civil liberties issues.

“We have to be careful about that,” said Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, the co-chairwoman of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

But other lawmakers said they support the larger effort to address domestic terrorism.

“It’s an issue we need to address, absolutely,” said Rep. William “Bill” Rehm, R-Albuquerque.

New Mexico has already seen several deadly school shootings in recent years, as well as the case of a group of family members who had been living on a remote compound near Amalia – just south of the state line with Colorado – who are facing charges of conspiring to attack U.S. law enforcement officers.

Meanwhile, this isn’t the first time that an act of violence has prompted a call for tougher New Mexico terrorism laws.

A bill filed in 2002 – after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks – that would have made identity theft for terrorism purposes a second-degree felony stalled in the state Senate after passing the House.

Final drafts of the proposed legislation for the upcoming session are expected to be done in the coming weeks. The first day to pre-file bills is Dec. 16.

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