Two of the seven bills that Gov. Phil Scott signed into law on Tuesday establish specific roles for law enforcement agencies in supporting emergency and mental health service providers. Two others create changes in the treatment of criminal defendants with serious mental illness or impairment and where they will be treated.
A fifth aligns Vermont’s gun control rules with federal laws prohibiting the purchase of straw and tampering with serial numbers on guns, and ensures that prosecution of minor crimes involving firearms, illegal sale of drugs and human trafficking starts in criminal court.
A sixth new law requires standardization of school safety plans and procedures, while a seventh addresses cancer risks among professional and volunteer firefighters.
For Scott, the group’s main theme is public safety, which he called a primary responsibility for any government when it announced its actions.
These bills make Vermont an even safer place to live and raise a family, he said.
Transportation for mental health
The signing of S.47 legally clarifies that police and sheriff departments are responsible for transporting a person to a court-ordered emergency mental health exam.
A mental health practitioner can apply for a court warrant for an examination and can transport someone if circumstances permit. However, it’s not likely that a provider will be able to safely provide transportation, said Dillon Burns, director of mental health services at Vermont Care Partners, which represents state-designated mental health agencies.
We’re talking about a person who has been found to be at risk of (being) harm to themselves or others, Burns said. So it’s a very rare and extreme circumstance.
The new law also requires that soft restraints be available in all law enforcement vehicles and be prioritized for use in these cases where possible instead of mechanical restraints such as handcuffs. Additionally, a warrant must be based on behavior observed by the doctor or law enforcement official, or on a signed statement from a third party.
Patients out of control
The second law, S.36, responds to a call by dozens of health care professionals for more law enforcement assistance in handling runaway patients or their visitors in hospitals and other emergency medical facilities.
With its passage, law enforcement no longer needs a warrant to arrest someone for a threatening offense against a health care worker or for getting into an argument or other violent behavior that interferes with medically necessary health services .
The news was welcomed by Tom Dee, president and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington. He testified, along with several of his staff, about the workplace violence that doctors and nurses regularly experience.
In the heat of the moment, they need to be able to bring in law enforcement, Dee said. Previously, unless the police themselves observed the activity, only a summons could be issued. It doesn’t solve the problem, but it’s an important step in the right direction, she said.
Dee especially praised the efforts of Senator Dick Sears D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on this bill.
Scott also praised Sears. Many of these bills would not have made it to the finish line without his hard work, he said in his statement.
Another bill Sears helped create was signed into law Tuesday: S.4, one of three firearms pieces of legislation passed by the legislature this year.
Scott has argued in recent years that he doesn’t believe Vermont needs to tighten gun control laws further since he is known to have signed a large package into law in 2018. But he told reporters during the legislative session that he found S.4 acceptable, as it largely brought Vermont state law into line with federal gun laws.
In particular, S.4 mirrors recently enacted federal laws prohibiting the purchase of straw when someone purchases a gun that is given to someone else who could not legally have bought it, and tampering with serial numbers on guns.
Still awaiting action later this week is H.230, the most controversial of this year’s gun laws. Scott’s office has signaled that he is unlikely to sign the law.
S.4 also changes the court of initial jurisdiction from family court to criminal court for certain cases against persons aged 14 to 21, especially involving drug dealing, human trafficking or carrying a dangerous weapon while committing a crime. It also increases the monetary penalty for a landlord or homeowner who knowingly allows their buildings to be used for the sale of illegal drugs or human trafficking from $1,000 to $15,000.
Another bill signed Tuesday, S.91, makes several changes to procedures related to court-ordered skills assessments. Specifically, it separates the competency hearings process from the process of finding an insanity defense and directs the Department of Mental Health and the Department of Aging and Independent Living, or DAIL, to report on a framework for the restoration of skills by November 15.
Additionally, the law now states that when a person is found unfit to stand trial and is taken into custody by either department, the conditions the court placed on bail will apply upon release. For example, someone sentenced to be held without bail for a violent crime would be transferred directly to Department of Corrections custody.
Furthermore, S.91 also clarifies that a court may order subsequent assessments after the initial one, but only if there is clinical evidence that a person’s jurisdiction may have changed. It also allows you to issue an arrest warrant for a defendant who fails to appear for a competency assessment.
Finally, the law allows the Department of Mental Health to contract doctoral-level psychologists trained in forensic psychology to conduct competency assessments for one year, while the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee considers whether this change should become permanent. Currently, Vermont is one of the few states that requires evaluations to be performed only by psychiatrists, but the department was recently held in contempt of court in part due to an ongoing backlog of evaluations.
S.89, S.138 and S.73
- Another new law, S.89, directs the Department of Mental Health to set up a nine-bed forensic facility within the building that currently houses Berlin’s Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital for people in their care involved in the criminal justice system. The staffing plan is due in the Legislature by next February, with an opening scheduled for July 1 of the same year. A working group was convened this summer to determine whether a person similarly detained by the DAIL and charged with a crime should be placed there, with a complaint expected in December.
- In the education sphere, S.138 requires all public and independent schools to develop access control and visitor management policies and all-hazard contingency operational plans in accordance with guidelines established by the Education Agency. At a minimum, the access policy must require that all school sites and union and district supervisory offices close their exterior doors during the school day and require visitor access. In addition, the bill establishes a program for the widespread phasing-in of the use of behavioral threat assessment teams in schools, with a model set of policies and procedures developed this year and implemented by July 1, 2025.
- Finally, S.73 adds cancers of the lung, thyroid, breast, and reproductive system to the list of cancers for which a firefighter may be able to claim workers’ compensation benefits. It also recommends studying how the state might pay for all or part of annual cancer screenings for firefighters in both professional and volunteer roles.
Sarah Mearhoff contributed to the reporting.
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