More than ⅓ of Arizona’s felony laws never used, report says. Is it time for a cleanup?
Did you know it’s a felony in Arizona to remove a racing greyhound’s identification device?
Or to falsify the date auto glass was repaired?
Or to lie to get a bingo license?
No? It’s possible that police or prosecutors aren’t aware, either, as these felony statutes haven’t been tapped for a real case in a generation.
Late last month, the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission released a report showing that 34 percent, or 500 of the current 1,487 statutes that contain a felony penalty, haven’t been used in the past 15 years.
The phenomenon isn’t limited to archaic laws passed around the time of statehood in 1912.
Seventy-four, or 63 percent, of the 117 felony laws that were passed or expanded since 2011 never have been used to charge anyone.
The report called the current state of Arizona’s felony statutes an “increasingly complex landscape” for Arizona citizens and law enforcement to navigate.
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Andrew LeFevre, justice commission executive director, said the report wasn’t intended to take a position on the laws but to spark a discussion among legislators.
“What we would hope would happen out of this would be a call by policymakers to look at these laws that have been on the books for a period of time that haven’t been used, and have a discussion as to whether they’re still relevant or germane to society,” he said.
The report outlined a possible approach: A group of stakeholders that deal with the topics could review the statutes and suggest whether they’re still relevant.
Legislators then could evaluate what appears to be redundant or irrelevant, and eventually repeal.
Redundant, irrelevant or usable in the future?
An Arizona Republic review of the dormant laws shows that they tend to fall in at least one of three categories: They could be redundant, and the potential crime chargeable under a more general statute; simply irrelevant in modern times; or new enough that they still may be used in the future.
The report highlighted a law against bribing of racing personnel is (a Class 4 felony) as duplicative. Though that statute hasn’t been charged in the past 15 years, the report notes that a separate statute — bribery of participants in professional or amateur games, sports, horse races, dog races, contests — is also a Class 4 felony and is regularly being charged.
The study differentiates between these laws and recently enacted, unused laws. For instance, a number of stalking statutes have never been used, but they were only added in 2016.
Arizona state Rep. Reginald Bolding said there are a number of reasons why a bill could become a law in name only.
The Laveen Democrat said bills are often inspired by a trend or issue creating waves at that moment in time.
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He said news reports of terrorism or mass shootings often inspire lawmakers propose a solution to a problem, even if if it’s not practical. Bolding said he hadn’t read the justice commission report in detail, but said he would support clearing the decks.
“If we’re simply passing policy just for the sake of passing policy, that probably shouldn’t be a practice that we use at the state Legislature,” he said.
Officers search online for charging codes
Sgt. Jonathan Howard, a Phoenix police spokesman, said once or twice a year, the department’s legal unit sends out a legislative update on new laws that would apply to the department.
This update usually refers to laws regarding crime, traffic or alcohol.
Howard said the laws can be overwhelming, but police don’t necessarily need to memorize each code. There’s an online system in which arresting officers can search statutes by keywords.
There’s always a possibility that dormant laws could be used against someone if they remain in place, he said.
“It’s important to make sure our laws reflect the contemporary standards and expectations of our communities,” he said.
Swaths of unused laws
A majority of the felony charges that haven’t been used in the past 15 years involve insurance, the environment, and professions and occupations, according to the report.
They comprise 23 of the 32 felony-eligible statutes in Title 20, laws dealing with insurance; 84 out of 103 in Title 32, professions and occupations; and 47 out of 54 in Title 49, dealing with the environment.
According to Title 32, for instance, it’s against the law to practice real estate while incarcerated, or to operate as a private investigator without a license. Title 49 makes it illegal to transport hazardous waste to a facility not authorized to receive hazardous waste.
Within these titles there are swaths of statutes that were likely part of an omnibus bill, or a package of related bills.
In April 1993, 19 felony-eligible crimes dealing with racing went into effect. Three of those statutes have been used at all in the past 15 years though, for a total of six times.
Similarly, there were 26 statutes involving impersonating an officer that were added in 2005, 19 of which have never been used.
What could happen next?
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, one of the commission members who asked for the study, said further review of the statutes is necessary.
“This is the first step in determining whether there are statutes that could be removed from our criminal code,” he said in a statement to The Republic.
LeFevre said commission officials hope the next steps will include meeting with members of the Arizona Legislature, as well as those who work in the industries affected by the unused bills.
Only lawmakers have the power to repeal a statute.
“Ultimately, what we’re hoping to happen is to have serious conversation down at the Legislature on whether they can clean up our statutes with these felony codes that haven’t been used in 15 years,” he said.
LeFevre said he also hopes the report sparks a discussion on the front end of lawmaking.
“Maybe this could require a conversation down at the Legislature, that maybe more research needs to be done before creating a new penalty for something that’s already on the books,” he said.