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Oregon lawmakers passed array of criminal justice bills in tumultuous session

Oregon lawmakers passed a range of public safety bills in the 2023 legislative session that target a variety of crimes.
Portland Police Bureau
Oregon lawmakers passed a range of public safety bills in the 2023 legislative session that target a variety of crimes.

Oregon legislators addressed sex crimes, street racing, ghost guns and other public safety issues but did not fund a legal service for victims.

Oregon lawmakers passed bills this session that crack down on a mix of crimes.

They voted to expand the statute of limitations from 12 to 20 years for prosecutors to file rape charges and to increase the penalties for people who participate in illegal street races. They also banned ghost guns that are untraceable and lack serial numbers. They passed a bill that targets paramilitary activity and intimidation, a recognition that Oregon is a growing hotspot for anti-government activity with armed protesters.

The bills, some still awaiting Gov. Tina Kotek’s signature, faced political headwinds that led to compromise. The GOP-led walkout in the Senate forced Democrats to carve out most of a firearms bill intended to address gun violence, leaving Democratic lawmakers with only the provision that bans ghost guns. Elsewhere, an earlier Republican-sponsored bill to expand the statute of limitations to file rape charges died. A new bill later revived that proposal.

Though several key bills passed, lawmakers didn’t fund a Portland-based service that provides free guidance to victims.

Here’s a look at what passed:

More time to prosecute rapists

Oregon prosecutors would get another eight years to prosecute people for first-degree sex crimes, under House Bill 3632.

The bill, if signed by Kotek into law, would expand the statute of limitations to prosecute from 12 to 20 years. If the victim was under 18 at the time of the crime, the statute of limitations would end after 20 years or when the victim turns 30, whichever comes later. For example, a 6-year-old child who is a victim would have 24 years, or until they turn 30, to report the crime.

The bill is intended to empower rape survivors to report their experiences to authorities when they ready, holding abusers accountable for crimes that scar victims for a lifetime.

Some of those rape victims joined lawmakers to push for change. In March, they spoke to reporters about their experiences in the case of the notorious “jogger rapist” Richard Gillmore – who admitted to raping nine women and girls in the 1970s and 1980s in the Portland area. Despite his admissions, he was convicted of raping only one victim because the others were outside the statute of limitations. Gillmore’s release from prison to a halfway house in February after 36 years brought renewed attention to the issue. He gained the nickname because he cased out the homes of victims while jogging in Portland.

“The statute of limitations was the single deciding factor that put justice out of my reach even though Gillmore admitted to my rape and my evidence was key in his prosecution years later,” said Danielle Tudor, one of Gillmore’s victims. “I take pride and comfort in knowing women and girls who follow behind me will have the chance for the justice I was denied.”

The bill passed on the Senate floor Sunday in the final hours of the session.

“House Bill 3632 will give more survivors an opportunity for justice while holding violent offenders accountable,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, one of its chief sponsors.

A different GOP-sponsored bill that would have accomplished the same goal died in the Senate without a committee hearing, stoking fears among victims that lawmakers wouldn’t address the issue this session. That measure was introduced in February. In April, frustrated Republican senators made a long-shot procedural move to pull the bill from the committee to the Senate floor for a vote. It failed.

After the walkout ended, House Bill 3632 was introduced on June 20, five days before the session ended. This time, it had bipartisan support and passed both chambers unanimously.

“As a former prosecutor of domestic violence and sexual abuse, I know how much courage it takes to come forward in cases like these,” said Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton.

Democratic Sen. Kate Lieber of Beaverton and Republican Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend work together in the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday, June 15, 2023.
Ben Botkin
Oregon Capital Chronicle
Democratic Sen. Kate Lieber of Beaverton and Republican Sen. Tim Knopp of Bend work together in the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday, June 15, 2023.

Ghost guns banned

Oregon lawmakers passed a bill to regulate unserialized ghost guns, which are favored by many criminals because they’re almost impossible for law enforcement to track. The ban includes undetectable firearms that can evade a metal detector. Democratic Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum pushed for the ban for several sessions.

The measure, House Bill 2005, not yet signed by Kotek, would make Oregon the ninth state to ban ghost guns. But to reach this point – and end the GOP-led Senate walkout, Democratic lawmakers killed language in the bill that would have raised the minimum age to purchase most firearms from 18 to 21 years and allowed local agencies to ban firearms on government-owned property.

Both of those were intended to address gun violence, but faced stiff resistance from firearm owners worried about their rights.

It’s unclear what the future holds for firearms regulations in Oregon. The state faces court challenges to Measure 114, a voter-passed ballot measure that would put a permit-to-purchase system in place for new firearms owners and require a safety course. Oregon Democrats say they are watching court cases nationally that could determine whether it’s constitutional to ban firearms sales to people under 21. A judge in Virginia last month ruled that age limits undermines Second Amendment rights, the Associated Press reported.

In Oregon, legislative leaders are planning a workgroup focused on suicide prevention, Lieber said in a Sunday press conference.

She said that’s a good starting point because many firearms-related deaths are suicides. It’s too early to predict what firearms issues might emerge in the 2024 session, Lieber said.

“But certainly, as Democrats, we’re going to continue to push for sensible gun regulation,” Lieber said. “We believe that’s what Oregonians want, and that’s what they need. And I think focusing on suicide prevention and sensible gun regulations are going to be continue to be something that we as Democrats will pursue.”

Illegal street racing

The Legislature passed, and the governor has signed into law, a bill that puts tougher penalties in place for illegal street racing.

Street racing, popularized by the “Fast & Furious” film franchise, has become a growing problem for police and motorists, especially when public roads are blocked off for illegal races. In May, the Portland Police Bureau cited 33 people and arrested five in a one-night operation that targeted illegal street racing.

Senate Bill 615 makes street racing a crime punishable by up to 364 days’ imprisonment, a $6,250 fine, or both. That includes people who organize street races and block roads. It increases the punishment for second and subsequent convictions within a five-year period by making it a felony with a maximum of five years’ imprisonment, $125,000 fine, or both.

Organized retail theft

Lawmakers set a new $5 million grant to help police agencies fight organized retail theft rings. Through Senate Bill 900, police agencies will be able to apply for state grants to combat the problem and coordinate efforts to fight the problem.

Retailers had told lawmakers the problem cost millions of dollars in losses statewide, driving up the prices of goods for honest customers.

Non-unanimous jury convictions

Senate Bill 321 would create a pathway for people convicted with non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases to appeal their cases. U.S. Supreme Court and Oregon Supreme Court rulings about non-unanimous jury verdicts provide them a legal avenue to have their case tossed out or retried. That sets the stage for people convicted in prior cases to seek relief.

The bill, which awaits Kotek’s signature, would remove the deadlines for defendants to file in court and establish procedures for how cases will be retried.

Labor trafficking

Senate Bill 1052 emerged from the attorney general’s labor trafficking task force. Labor trafficking can involve situations such as when a person is enslaved to pay off a purported debt or trapped with the false promise of a job and legal residency.

The bill, which Kotek signed, provides help to victims and supporters and holds traffickers accountable in criminal and civil courts. For example, it gives victims up to 10 years to seek civil damages, or longer if they were trafficked as a minor.

Paramilitary activity

Lawmakers passed House Bill 2572, which is now on Kotek’s desk, to allow the attorney general and private citizens to take paramilitary groups to court.

Paramilitary activity involves groups of people who illegally intimidate others from conducting lawful activity, such as voting. Potentially, it could include activities like brandishing a firearm near a polling place or suggesting a violent outcome for voters.

Under the bill, the attorney general can get a court order against the activity, and private citizens can sue for damages.

Funding missing for crime victims center

But there also were apparent glitches for crime victims too. OregonLive reported that the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center didn’t get any money for the next two-year budget cycle, which starts in July.

The Portland-based center helped more than 300 crime victims last year and received 43% of its money, $1.27 million, in the 2021-2023 budget cycle. The center’s attorneys help crime victims understand their rights.

It’s unclear why the nonprofit wasn’t funded this session. Officials said they hope to get state money in the 2024 short session.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Ben Botkin has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon.