Bill aimed at decriminalizing certain code violations passes House

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ST. GEORGE — A bill that aims to limit the practice of cities and counties from charging people with misdemeanors for code violations that aren’t inherently harmful to others passed the Utah House unanimously Wednesday.

The proposed Local Government Nuisance Ordinance Reform, designated as HB 202 in the 2020 Utah Legislature, passed after a brief explanation of its purpose by bill author Rep. Jefferson Moss, R-Saratoga Springs.

Municipalities and counties tend to make class B misdemeanors a default for code violation offenses, Moss said. This can result in someone being charged with potential criminal activity when a dog escapes the yard or they had dead grass on their lawn. That person then ends up paying a fine to the city – which represents an admission of guilt – and may get a criminal record that could negatively impact them later on.

A class B misdemeanor in Utah can carry a potential term of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to a $1,000. The charge may also show up on background checks.

“What this bill does is ensure that people who violate their local code enforcement will not be given a misdemeanor unless the actions rises to the level of a nuisance,” Moss said, “which is described as anything injurious to health, indecent, offensive to the senses or is an obstruction to the freedom of property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property.”

The bill primarily aims to address low-level violations that do not cause harm to others and are more akin to civil and not criminal violations. However, municipalities and counties will retain the ability to issue fines and infractions for code offenses.

The libertarian-leaning Libertas Institute, which supports the bill, gave examples on its website of cases where it felt code enforcement via misdemeanor charges went too far.

One example was of a woman from Heber City who was charged with three class B misdemeanors for her dog escaping her front yard. Another example came from Roy, where a woman was charged with a misdemeanor for failing to keep dandelions out of her yard.

However, a misdemeanor offense would still come into play due to repeated offenses or if the violation is perceived to be criminal in nature.

During a meeting of the House committee meeting held earlier this month, Moss told the committee he was a member of a city council before being a legislator. While on the council, Moss and others changed how the city enforced its code by moving away from enforcing ordinances through criminal misdemeanor charges.

Initially, there was some concern from the Utah League of Cities and Town regarding the ability to enforce ordinances. These concerns were subsequently addressed through an amendment Moss added to the HB 202 Wednesday.

St. George Rep. Walt Brooks said he thought it was a “good bill.”

“Sometimes the pendulum of the law swings too far, and we need to address it,” Brooks said. “This does a good job of balancing what government should be imposing.”

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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