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A blizzard of 747 new laws affect California residents, and the state’s attorneys

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

Law booksAs Californians celebrated the new year this month with hopes for better economic times, hundreds of new laws, including laws dealing with an expedited jury trial option, online impersonators and tailgating paparazzi, quietly went into effect.

Marijuana possession in small amounts is now an infraction, not a misdemeanor. Medical marijuana buyers’ clubs and dispensaries must be located at least 600 feet away from any K-12 school. The threshold for a grand theft charge rose to $950, up from $400. And Feb. 6 of every year is now officially Ronald Reagan Day in California.

In all, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed 747 bills into law last year at a time when lawmakers were struggling with budget woes and more than 2 million Californians remained unemployed.

Some of the laws have already taken effect, such as a recently signed bill prohibiting the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. Others go into effect later. For example, teens in California’s foster care system, who often wind up on their own at age 18, will soon be eligible for extended support and benefits up to age 21, if they meet certain criteria, under legislation to be phased in from 2012 to 2014. California Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno, who chairs a blue ribbon commission on children in foster care, suggested that many of California’s most vulnerable young people now face “much brighter” futures as a result of “this historic legislation.”

In the wake of the commission’s recommendations for improvements in the foster care system, other recent legislation aims to keep siblings together and allows youngsters to stay in the same school even if they are moved to new foster homes.

The Expedited Jury Trials Act (AB 2284), which also took effect this month, could change the very nature of civil disputes in California and reduce the cost of a simple jury trial by as much as 80 percent. Modeled after similar quick trial options offered in New York and South Carolina, such expedited jury trials will be heard, on a date certain, before a judge and jury of eight. Each side will be limited to three peremptory challenges and will have to present their case and arguments in just three hours, with the goal of concluding the civil trial in one day. Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who authored the bill, points out that such an option “saves the judiciary significant amounts of money and allows people to get their cases to trial and have their day in court.”

Other recently enacted bills will impact how family law cases move through the court system, from case management to the presentation of oral testimony to the responsibilities of minors’ counsel. AB 939, for example, generally gives litigants the right to present live testimony now in family law matters. And in 2012, under AB 1050, 14-year-olds, too, will have the right to testify unless the court explains why their testimony should not be heard. The changes are part of a sweeping blueprint of recently proposed reforms aimed at improving Californians’ access to fair, efficient treatment in family court.

California’s latest crop of new laws touches on a wide range of issues:

Carbon monoxide detectors — SB 183 requires existing single-family homes (those with fossil fuel-burning appliances or heaters, an attached garage or a fireplace) to be outfitted with carbon monoxide alarms by July. Other dwellings, such as hotels, must make the change by 2013.

Crimes against children — AB 1280, also known as Adam’s Law, creates a stiffer penalty (life without the possibility of parole) for abuse by a parent or other caregiver that causes a child under 8 to go into a coma or become permanently paralyzed. AB 1844, known as Chelsea’s Law, sets harsher penalties for sex offenders who prey on children and an additional fine of up to $100,000 if a commercial sex act and human trafficking are involved.

Disqualification of judges — AB 2487 requires judges to disqualify themselves from any matter in which one of the attorneys or parties contributed more than $1,500 to the judge’s future election campaign or last election that took place within the previous six years. (The non-contributing party can waive the disqualification.)

Donor registry — Under SB 1395, beginning in July, the Department of Motor Vehicles will have to provide information on registering as an organ donor and verbally ask all applicants (those applying for driver’s licenses and license renewals or identification cards) if they would like to enroll in the registry. The bill also establishes the nation’s first living donor registry for kidney transplants.

Farm worker safety — Under AB 1963, the results of ongoing lab tests related to farm workers’ exposure to certain hazardous pesticides must now be reported to various state agencies, including the Department of Pesticide Regulation, responsible for worker health and workplace safety.

Handgun ammunition — Starting this February under AB 962 (enacted in 2009), handgun ammunition sales and deliveries will have to be done in person and buyers will have to provide identification and a thumbprint, with some exceptions, or the seller could face misdemeanor charges.

Health care — AB 1602 and SB 900 create the California Health Benefit Exchange to help consumers and businesses, beginning in 2014, shop for competitive health insurance. Other new state statutes that implement federal health care changes allow young people to remain on their parents’ plan until age 26, prohibit insurers from denying coverage to children based on a pre-existing condition, require health plans to cover preventive services (such as mammograms) without co-pays or deductibles and protect patients from having their coverage illegally or unfairly rescinded.

Human trafficking — SB 657, beginning in 2012, will require major retail sellers and manufacturers doing business in California to disclose their voluntary efforts to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chain for tangible goods offered for sale.

Marijuana possession — SB 1449 reduces marijuana possession to an infraction (rather than a misdemeanor) with a maximum $100 fine when the amount does not exceed 28.5 grams.

Medical marijuana — AB 2650 bars medical marijuana buyers’ clubs and dispensaries from being located within 600 feet of any public or private K-12 school. Existing local ordinances that regulate the location or establishment of such dispensaries will not, however, be preempted by the new law.

Medical parole — Under SB 1399, permanently medically incapacitated prisoners shall be granted medical parole if they meet certain criteria and the Board of Parole Hearings concludes that they would not reasonably pose a threat to public safety. Prisoners facing sentences of death or life without the possibility of parole would not be eligible.

Online impersonation — SB 1411 makes it a misdemeanor to credibly impersonate someone through or on a website or by certain other electronic means to harm, intimidate, threaten or defraud another person.

Paparazzi restrictions — AB 2479 makes it a misdemeanor to tailgate or drive recklessly to capture a photo or tape recording of someone for commercial purposes. And if the targeted subject is a child, the consequences could be a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. In addition, the paparazzi would be liable for damages and fines if they were to falsely imprison someone to capture a photo or recording as well.

Public Interest Task Force — AB 2764 requires the State Bar president to create a “Governance in the Public Interest Task Force” to submit a report in 2011 (and then every three years) to the Supreme Court, the governor and the legislative judiciary committees with recommendations for enhancing and ensuring the State Bar’s public protection efforts.

Real estate fraud protections — AB 2325 expands the strict foreclosure consultant restrictions to apply to anyone who performs a forensic audit of a residential mortgage loan. AB 1373 requires certain disclosures on mailed solicitations that offer grant deed copy service to homeowners. AB 1800 increases the criminal punishment for renting out a residential dwelling without the owner’s consent.

School safety — AB 211 requires all new construction plans for schools (beginning in July) to include doors that lock from the inside. Violent incidents on school campuses are increasing at an alarming rate, the legislation points out, and most school classrooms, offices and other rooms currently can only be locked from the outside.

Student-athletes right to know — AB 2079, effective in 2012, requires colleges to publicly disclose their policies concerning sports-related medical expenses, scholarship renewal standards and out-of-pocket expenses that athletes on full athletic scholarships will be expected to pay.

Truancy — Under SB 1317, parents who fail to reasonably supervise and encourage their chronically truant child’s school attendance (after being offered certain support services) can now be charged with a misdemeanor and face a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Zoo trespassing — AB 1675 makes it an infraction or a misdemeanor to enter an animal enclosure at a zoo, circus, aquarium or traveling animal exhibit without permission.