Doctors provide conflicting testimony on bill criminalizing assisted suicide

Opponents of a bill  criminalizing physician assisted suicide line up to speak Tuesday

Opponents of a bill criminalizing physician-assisted suicide line up to speak Tuesday

Members of the Montana Senate Judiciary Committee heard a bill seeking to clamp-down on leniency toward physician-assisted suicide granted by the Montana Supreme Court.

In the court’s 2009 “Baxter Decision“, justices declared Montana law did not limit a doctor’s right to provide ‘aid in dying’ to a terminally ill patient providing consent and taking the lethal dose themselves.

“This legal gray area remains, a little bit of confusion and that’s the purpose of this bill, to clarify the situation,” said Representative Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel) about his HB505. Under the bill, a doctor engaging in assisted suicide could be sentenced to 10 years in prison and/or would have to pay up to a $50 thousand fine.
The group Montanans Against Assisted Suicide presented a petition supporting the bill signed by about 100 Montana physicians. Those speaking in favor of Kerns’ bill say the current leeway given to doctors opens the door to elder abuse, and rationing of care to those with severe illnesses.
“The purpose of medicine is to put a collegial arm around patients and walk with them through whatever they’re experiencing,” said Great Falls neurosurgeon Paul Gorsuch, one of the doctors who signed the support petition. “Assisted suicide is prone to deadly error, it’s prone to abuse.”
Retired Great Falls doctor David Hafer says he himself has undergone very painful cancer treatment, treatment that he says plunged him into severe depression for the first time in his life. He says some patients could be too easily coerced into suicide.
“When this cloud of depression comes over you, from the cancer drugs that are administered, you are not in your right mind,” he said.
The Judiciary Committee heard from a long line of opponents as well, including several doctors.
“You may be wondering, what kind of doctor is it that you will be sending to jail?” asked
 Missoula family physician Eric Kress referencing the bill. “I stand before you and state that I am that kind of doctor, I have written an aid in dying prescription on three occasions.” He says he gave those three prescriptions out of ten who requested the option following the Baxter Decision. “All were male and all were rugged individualists,” he said, and each said it was important to preserve dignity in their deaths from painful, terminal conditions.
Another Missoula doctor, Tom Roberts, said he has had patients hoard non-lethal prescription medications to later kill themselves with an overdose. He worries how HB505 would affect doctors prescribing of some of those drugs.
 “We want it to be an open and honest discussion, all of us would, when we’re going in to see a doctor,” he said. “Now we’re going to have this hanging over our heads as physicians.”
The committee took no action on the bill Tuesday. We reported earlier this session on a bill seeking to specifically allow physician-assisted suicide. That bill was tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.

Gun bills begin their path through the Senate after clearing House

Ravalli County Undersheriff Perry Johnson speaks against a bill to prohibit the enforcement of new federal gun laws during a hearing Wednesday

Ravalli County Undersheriff Perry Johnson speaks against a bill to prohibit the enforcement of new federal gun laws during a hearing Wednesday

A collection of controversial gun bills are making their way through the state Senate after passing the House.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard two bills from Representative Krayton Kerns (R-Laurel) on Wednesday. One (HB 302) would prevent the legislature from enforcing any new federal bans on semi-automatic firearms or high-capacity magazines. Kerns calls it a response to federal intrusion, even though the federal government has yet to make any decisions in new gun control talks. “There’s nothing wrong with us pre-empting them and saying we’re not going to go along with what it is they’re attempting to do,” he said.

The Montana Sheriff’s and Peace Officers Association opposes the bill. Ravalli County Undersheriff Perry Johnson says he does not agree with the new gun regulations being proposed at the federal level, but he does not want to put state statutes at odds with federal laws.

He uses an example of arresting someone in partnership with a federal officer, saying “If we seized someone during that enforcement action that had a high-capacity magazine and a semi-automatic weapon, we could be arrested or we could be charged with a criminal act. That’s not appropriate.”

Some critics of the bill also say it would not pass federal constitutional muster.

The other bill Represenative Kerns brought before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday (HB 205) removes the state’s prohibition on gun silencers. Kerns says Hollywood has not accurately portrayed silencers, which her refers to as ‘suppressors.’ The gunshot is not silent, the initial sound of the bullet leaving the muzzle is lowered about 20 percent, or 30 decibals.

“All we’re suppressing is the sound of the muzzle blast in the immediate area. The projectile traveling beyond the speed of sound, the sonic boom remains—the downrange noise remains the same,” Kerns said. Supporters say lowering the muzzle blast is enough to help with hearing loss for big game hunters. Plus they say a months-long federal background check is required before silencers can be used in any respect.

Montana hunters can already use silencers when hunting coyote, fox, prairie dogs and gopher. This legislation seeks to lift all prohibition, allowing the suppressors for big game hunting.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks spoke against the bill. FWP Law Enforcement Chief Jim Kropp says landowners and other recreationists rely on being able to effectively hear where gun shots are coming from during hunting season.

“Over a distance from where that weapon is fired 30 decibels does make a big difference in being able to hear the report of that weapon,” Kropp said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet voted on either of these bills.

Funding for crime prevention programs tabled in Senate committee

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Crime Prevention Group funding bill Friday

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Crime Prevention Group funding bill Friday

The Senate Judiciary Committee Friday tabled a bill which would create a fund for a variety of crime prevention programs in the state, from neighborhood watch organizations to drug education programs in schools. There was wide support for the bill’s core concept, but lawmakers did not agree with the funding source, a $10 surcharge to those convicted of crime.

Bill Sponsor, Huntley Republican Senator Taylor Brown says crime prevention efforts in communities are very successful. He says these groups are mostly run by volunteers and save Montanans money in law enforcement costs. They often struggle for funding themselves.

“This crime prevention bill is about much more than just starting a neighborhood watch program or using McGruff the Crime Dog to teach early awareness to your grandchildren, although it very well may help support efforts like that,” Brown said. He says the surcharge is a ‘user pays’ concept allowing “the ones who cause the crime to pay for crime prevention.”

That funding would create a grant program for crime prevention groups. Butte Addictions Counselor Dan Haffe says bad things happen to good people and the state has not worked hard enough to establish prevention programs in schools.

“I have taught hundreds of DUI classes,” Haffe said. “Hundreds of MIP classes and I see this as an opportunity to make great strides in working with people before they ever get to that felony status.”

Crime prevention groups themselves stood up in favor, the Montana County Attorneys Association, and the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers. Yet, spokesman Jim Smith pointed to what ended up being the problem.

“The surcharge is the sticky wicket here,” he said.

Montanans convicted of crimes already usually spend about $85 in surcharges. Public Policy Director of the Montana ACLU Niki Zupanic says surcharges are creating a system where those convicted of crimes are being saddled with funding parts of the justice system that everyone has a shared obligation to support.

“These costs, fees and assessments add up, and in the aggregate are a real barrier for low-income people to pay their debt, move forward, and put their mistakes behind them,” Zupanic said.

Bill sponsor Taylor Brown argues these fees in Montana are far lower than surrounding states. “We don’t hardly do anything, and maybe that’s fine when you’re a state that has very little crime, but that’s changing,” he said, referring to the oil boom in eastern Montana, and other factors like increasing gang and drug activity.

Ultimately, the bipartisan committee voted ten to two to table the bill.

Great Falls Democratic Senator Anders Blewett says everyone believes in crime prevention, but sponsors need to think of another way to fund it. Not surcharges.

Sponsor Taylor Brown says he did not want this fund to be drawn directly from taxpayers, but he will consider the idea for possibly drawing up a new bill to fund it through the State General Fund.