Bill would broaden AG consumer protection powers

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 8 on a proposal that would grant Nebraska’s attorney general greater powers to prosecute businesses or business owners for unfair or deceptive practices.

Sen. Carolyn Bosn

LB934, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Carolyn Bosn, would authorize the attorney general’s office to bring a trial by jury under the Consumer Protection Act or the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The bill also would authorize the attorney general to freeze assets of suspected deceptive businesses or owners of such businesses.

Bosn said entities accused of crimes under both laws often try to avoid paying restitution by draining their bank accounts — sending money overseas or using it on vacations or cars. Allowing the attorney general to freeze a defendant’s bank account in such cases would help ensure that plaintiffs receive restitution, she said.

“We have all heard stories about Nebraskans who have been victims of unfair or deceptive trade practices and have lost their hard-earned money to these businesses,” Bosn said. “This bill will give Nebraskans the best opportunity to get their money back.”

Testifying in support of the measure was Bebe Strnad, who serves as chief of the Consumer Protection Bureau in the state Attorney General’s Office. She said a jury is best suited to determine the outcome for these types of cases because individuals who serve on a jury are a “cross section of consumers.”

Strnad added that the proposal includes safeguards, such as requiring a court order to temporarily freeze an account and limiting the freeze to the amount connected with the alleged violation.

Spike Eickholt, who spoke on behalf of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, testified in opposition to the bill. A person can violate either act in a number of ways that are not necessarily deceptive, he said, such as misleading advertising or mimicking other brands. Under the bill, the attorney general would have the authority to pursue a court order to freeze an account under any circumstance, even one that involved no financial gain, Eickholt said.

Additionally, he said, if the attorney general is the only person who can authorize a jury trial and decides not to, then a jury trial cannot take place.

“Jury trial rights protect you from the government,” Eickholt said. “It’s not something you give the government.”

The committee took no immediate action on LB934.

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