Federal Legislation – Congress Acts on PORAC’s Federal Legislative Priorities

Darryl Nirenberg
Partner
Eva Rigamonti
Associate
Cameron O’Brien
Legislative Assistant
Steptoe & Johnson LLP

Congress was busy in April, addressing a number of law enforcement issues of concern to PORAC. On March 23, Congress passed and the president signed into law an omnibus federal spending bill that substantially increases FY 2018 funding for state and local law enforcement grant programs and includes provisions boosting federal support for school security initiatives and related law enforcement activities.

President Brian Marvel submitted testimony on behalf of PORAC to the Senate Judiciary Committee in conjunction with its hearing on reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). He expressed strong support for the reauthorization of VAWA, which provides grants and other resources to state and local law enforcement for combating domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and related crimes.

Congress intensified its focus on the opioid crisis in April. At least seven House and Senate committees held hearings on legislative proposals to address the ongoing nationwide epidemic. Many proposals under consideration were still in their early stages, but the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee announced plans to consider and vote on a comprehensive opioid crisis response bill in late April or early May.

On April 11, President Trump signed the PORAC-supported Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA) (H.R. 1865), which subjects online platforms such as Backpage.com to harsher state and federal penalties when they enable or encourage sex trafficking.

Federal Funding for Local Law Enforcement Boosted by Congress

On March 23, President Trump signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, an omnibus appropriations bill funding all components of the federal government for the remainder of FY 2018. The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 65–32 early that morning, after passing the House 256–167 the day before. The omnibus substantially boosts funding for vital state and local law enforcement assistance programs, appropriating a total of $2.4 billion for state and local law enforcement activities (a $375 million increase over FY 2017), including:

  • $275 million for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), a $54 million increase over FY 2017
  • $416 million for the Byrne JAG program, which provides grants supporting a broad range of state and local law enforcement activities — a $5 million increase over FY 2017
  • $492 million for grants and programs established under VAWA, which provide essential services to victims and assist state and local law enforcement in the fight against domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking — approximately $10.5 million more than last fiscal year

PORAC has vocally and consistently urged federal lawmakers to fully fund grant programs for state and local law enforcement. In early March, President Marvel and Vice President Brent Meyer spent two days meeting with members of Congress and Trump administration officials urging support for Department of Justice (DOJ) grant programs in general, and the COPS Office and Byrne JAG program in particular.

PORAC Testifies in Support of VAWA Reauthorization

In response to a request from Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), President Marvel submitted testimony on behalf of PORAC for a March 20 Senate Judiciary hearing titled “The Need to Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.” He expressed strong support for reauthorization of VAWA, and urged lawmakers to support VAWA programs that provide grants, training and technical assistance to state and local law enforcement. The testimony cited national data showing that despite progress over the years, domestic violence remains too common, with approximately 10 million Americans subjected to physical abuse by an intimate partner each year.

President Marvel shared with the committee concrete examples of innovative domestic violence response strategies that California law enforcement officers and community groups have found effective. Assisting in developing the testimony by sharing their insights and experiences were Sergeant Lisa Maneggie of the Sacramento Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit; Elaine Whitefeather, executive director of A Community for Peace (a Citrus Heights–based victim support and advocacy organization); and David Cropp, director of Domestic Violence Response Team Services at A Community for Peace.

Congress Passes School Safety Legislation

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 (FY 2018 omnibus) incorporated provisions from the Student, Teachers and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act of 2018 (H.R. 4909), a PORAC-supported bill to increase federal support for state and local school safety.

The STOP School Violence Act was introduced on January 30 by Representative John Rutherford (R-Fla.) and passed the House by a vote of 407–10 on March 14. It is intended to help public safety officers spot warning signs of violence early and prevent future tragedies. Grant funding under the act may be used for subgrants to state and local law enforcement agencies and school violence response training for law enforcement officers. In addition, state and local governments may use grants to fund school threat assessment and intervention teams (which may include coordination between law enforcement and school personnel).

The legislation increases grant funding available for state and local school safety initiatives by reauthorizing through 2028 an expired federal matching grant program administered by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), increasing the amount of authorized funds from $30 million per year under prior law to $50 million per year, and increasing to 75% the portion of an applicant’s costs that may be covered by a grant.

House and Senate Committees Consider Opioid Crisis Response Legislation

In April, House and Senate committees held hearings and considered legislation intended to address opioid addiction by (1) funding training and equipment for law enforcement and other first responders, (2) providing greater access to substance abuse treatment, (3) regulating over-prescription, and (4) increasing criminal penalties associated with distribution of particularly deadly opioids such as fentanyl.

On April 11, the Senate HELP Committee, House Energy and Commerce Committee, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee all held hearings on the opioid epidemic and legislative response proposals. Other committees that scheduled April hearings on the opioid crisis include the House Armed Services Committee, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the Senate Finance Committee.

One proposal expected to advance through the Senate HELP Committee in late April or early May is the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018, a wide-ranging bipartisan bill that would (1) streamline processes at the National Institutes of Health to advance research into nonaddictive painkillers, (2) enhance Customs and Border Protection screening for synthetic opioids like fentanyl entering the country, (3) upgrade FDA regulations governing the packaging and prescribing of opioids to cut down on over-prescription, (4) adjust Medicare and Medicaid coverage of mental health services to boost access to addiction treatment, and (5) provide grants to states for purposes including training for law enforcement officers on substance use disorders.

Federal Court Bars DOJ From Withholding COPS Grants From Sanctuary Cities

On April 12, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that the DOJ cannot condition COPS grant awards on whether an applicant local law enforcement agency cooperates with federal immigration enforcement efforts. The ruling was accompanied by a permanent nationwide injunction banning DOJ grantmakers from giving preference to state and local law enforcement agencies that cooperate with federal immigration authorities. DOJ officials have indicated the federal government will appeal the district court’s ruling.

The case, City of Los Angeles v. Sessions, focuses on the constitutionality of a DOJ policy announced on September 7, 2017, that gives priority consideration for COPS Hiring Program grants to applicant jurisdictions that (1) give federal immigration enforcement access to their detention centers, (2) comply with federal requests to provide 48 hours notice before releasing certain immigrant detainees, and (3) do not restrict communications between local government officials (including law enforcement) and immigration authorities.

The district court held that the DOJ policy violates Supreme Court precedent restricting the federal government from compelling states and localities to enforce federal law. Additionally, the court concluded that the DOJ policy violated constitutional and statutory provisions restricting executive branch agencies from altering spending programs without clear congressional authorization.