Stronger penalties requested for crimes based on employment

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony March 3 on a bill that would provide stronger criminal penalties for assaults committed against a person based on his or her employment.

Sen. Bruce Bostelman

When an assault is committed against a person because of his or her job or the legal discharge of their duties, the defendant could be charged with the next highest criminal penalty than currently allowed for a similar offense under LB638, introduced by Brainard Sen. Bruce Bostelman.

The bill would pertain to assaults against a peace officer, firefighter, emergency responder, health care professional or employee of the state Department of Correctional Services or Department of Health and Human Services.

LB638 also would add local correctional employees to the class of protected employees. The bill would not apply to offenses that already are categorized as a Class IB felony or higher.

“It’s time for us to protect the people who serve and protect us,” Bostelman said.

He provided an amendment that would incorporate provisions of two related bills: LB577, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers, which would create the offense of assault by ambush; and LB623, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, which would extend protections for frontline employees.

Craig Gottschalk, an assistant director at the Hall County Department of Corrections, testified in support of the bill. He said he has twice been physically assaulted while working and received numerous verbal threats against his and his family’s safety.

“Local correctional officers interact with and address our citizens at some of the most dangerous and volatile moments in their lives,” he said. “While the threats I’ve received are an accepted part of the risk I take going to my job every day, [my family members’] lives have changed because of my choice to work as a correctional officer.”

Representing the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, Spike Eickholt opposed the bill. He said it is unnecessary to elevate more criminal acts to the level of a felony offense given that assault already is illegal.

“We understand the dynamic of many of these people who work on the front lines of law enforcement,” he said. “However, it’s already against the law to assault anyone. There are enough crimes on the books with enough ample penalties.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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