Whitmer signs new laws to protect victims in court—and stiffen penalties for some crimes

(Courtesy/Gov. Gretchen Whitmer)

By Kyle Kaminski

November 6, 2023

Bipartisan legislation signed into law this week aims to support victims of crime by boosting access to support services, adding new privacy protections in the courtroom, and ramping up the criminal penalties for certain crimes.

MICHIGAN—A series of bills signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer are set to boost support for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, create new privacy protections in the courtroom, and update the penalties tied to certain crimes—including threatening state health care workers, embezzling from vulnerable adults, and driving violations that result in an injury or a death.

It’s called the Michigan Crime Victims’ Rights Package.

“As a former prosecutor, I am committed to supporting survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Whitmer said in a statement. “These common-sense bills will protect people’s privacy and safety while ensuring swift prosecutions for those who commit these crimes.”

Here’s a quick overview of the bills signed into law this week:

House Bill 4420

Sponsor: State Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo)

According to recent legislative testimony, many survivors of violence are not aware of the help that is available to them—including various compensation programs offered through the state. This legislation is designed to bolster access to those services and provide victims with support. 

Specifically, the bill formally enables cops and prosecutors to share victims’ contact information with domestic and sexual violence service providers, which are designed to help victims better navigate the criminal justice system and access a wide array of confidential support services.

According to a legislative analysis, this is already a fairly common practice in Michigan. The legislation would simply codify the concept into state law, as well as ensure that all survivors of crimes are notified when their information is confidentially shared with a service provider.

“Violence unfortunately has a way of infiltrating our communities. We’ve seen it in our schools, in homes, at our workplaces and in our neighborhoods,” Rogers said in a statement. “Ensuring victims are connected to survivor-centered programs such as trauma recovery is vital for survivors to feel supported—and it’s essential that their privacy be protected as they seek help.”    

House Bill 4421

Sponsor: State Rep. Stephanie Young (D-Detroit)

Under state law, certain information about victims of crimes—including any “visual representation” of them, like photographs, video, or drawings—are exempt from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. However, those privacy protections do not currently extend to court proceedings that are live streamed and made available online.

This legislation amends state law to allow a crime victim’s image to be blurred in certain court proceedings that are made available to the public. A legislative analysis found the changes particularly necessary as “the internet has given rise to the practice of people trolling Zoom streams and using images from the stream to harass, humiliate, and intimidate victims.”

“Passing these bills to provide greater protection for crime survivors and witnesses has been a major priority for me,” Young said in a statement. “It is my hope this will give peace of mind to those giving testimony to know their images won’t be used for digital stalking or other abuses.” 

House Bill 4422

Sponsor: State Rep. Graham Filler (R-Clinton County)

This legislation amends state law to expand the definition of “serious misdemeanor” to include more misdemeanor offenses—including threatening a state health official with physical harm, embezzling from a vulnerable adult, and causing serious injury or death while driving.

The term already covers a wide range of misdemeanor offenses like domestic violence, assault and battery, breaking and entering, and certain child abuse, firearm, and drunk driving charges. According to a legislative analysis, serious misdemeanors typically result in stiffer jail sentences and higher fines.

Lawmakers said amending the law will also indirectly provide additional support for victims of crimes—including a requirement that they be notified about any changes in an offender’s imprisonment.

“This bipartisan legislation will give crime victims a louder voice in the judicial process,” Filler said. “Crime victims who have been terrorized and victimized deserve resources and support and protection during the sentencing and trial. These are the kinds of bills that may save lives.”

House Bill 4423

Sponsor: State Rep. Greg VanWoerkom (R-Norton Shores)

Under state law, victims of crimes have the right to appear and make a statement at a defendant’s sentencing hearing. Those who are physically or emotionally unable to give a statement can designate another adult to make the statement on the victim’s behalf.

But without discretionary permission from a judge, victims or their designees must be physically present in the courtroom to provide their statement under law—no phone or Zoom calls allowed.

This legislation amends state law to allow victims to provide their statements virtually. 

“We must do all we can to ensure crime victim’s voices are heard and that they are able to share these statements where they are safe and away from their abuser,” VanWoerkom said.

READ MORE: Michigan lawmakers pass bills to shield victims’ privacy in criminal cases

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Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

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