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Prop. 114 would bar felons’ lawsuits against victims

PHOENIX – Crime victims shouldn’t have to worry that they may be sued by those who commit felonies against them, supporters of Proposition 114 argue.

“Who in the hell wants criminals to sue their victims?” said Charles Heller, a founder of the Arizona Citizens Defense League, which supports the measure.

Proposition 114 would shield crime victims from lawsuits by someone who is harmed while he or she commits a felony or flees after committing a felony. It would amend a section of the state Constitution that bars laws limiting the right to sue for death or injury.

A 1993 state law shielded defendants in lawsuits from liability if the person claiming harm in an accident or incident was attempting, committing or fleeing after committing a felony that made him or her at least 50 percent responsible.

But a 2006 Arizona Court of Appeals ruling nullified that because of the state Constitution’s ban on laws limiting the right to sue.

The case involved a security guard at a Tucson Safeway supermarket who subdued a man he accused of stealing moisturizer and who later died of asphyxiation, according to court documents. The man’s wife sued the guard, his employer and Safeway.

The parties eventually settled out of court.

“The court may have very well made the right decision based on the way the Constitution is written,” Heller said. “What we are doing now is correcting the Constitution through the legitimate legal process, correcting a deficiency that the court has pointed out.”

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Heller said the ruling in the Tucson case creates an incentive for criminals to traumatize their victims a second time.

“This is going to ring the dinner bell for every criminal in the barnyard,” he said.

The Tucson case didn’t involve a felony, and Heller couldn’t point to any cases in which Proposition 114 would have applied.

Former state Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who authored the legislation referred to the ballot in 2011, didn’t respond to a request for an interview.

State Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, voted against the legislation but said he expects Proposition 114 to pass overwhelmingly.

Gallego said he doesn’t want crime victims to be sued by those who commit felonies against them, but he considers the change unnecessary.

“There’s a reason we have our form of judicial system,” Gallego said. “You have to give some respect to the jury system and to our judges. They’re going to be able to determine most of the time whether someone deserves money or not.”

Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., said that when it comes to victims’ rights legislation the debate between those who say state laws are sufficient and those who want constitutional protection is common.

“The reality is that statutes are not as protective for victims,” Garvin said. “That’s true across the country.”

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Prop 114 facts

  • Title: Arizona Crime Victims Protection Act
  • Key provision: Bar lawsuits alleging negligence against crime victims by those who were committing felonies when the incident or injury occurred.
  • Rationale: The Arizona Constitution currently forbids any law limiting the right to sue for death or injury.
  • Origin: The Legislature voted to refer to the ballot a bill authored by former state Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.