Hearing set for bill targeting family members harboring felons

People who hide relatives on the run from the law or destroy evidence to protect them would face prosecution, under a bill scheduled for a hearing Thursday in Madison.

The measure, spearheaded for a dozen years by a woman whose grandson was killed in Oak Creek, has been introduced repeatedly in the Legislature but has not passed.

Shirley George, whose grandson Joey was murdered outside a bar in Oak Creek in 2000 after he was mistaken for another man, hopes this time is different.

"I am very excited about it (the hearing)," said George, who lives in the Waupaca area and calls the measure "Joey's Law." "I hope it comes to fruition."

Current Wisconsin law exempts the suspect's spouse, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters from prosecution if they harbor the felon or hide, destroy or place false evidence.

About a dozen other states have exceptions for family members harboring relatives, but Wisconsin law exempts more relatives and permits them to do more to thwart law enforcement without fear of prosecution.

The Journal Sentinel documented several examples in which homicide suspects were helped by family members — one finding of an investigation that uncovered how offenders escape punishment because of shortcomings in the system.

The current version of the bill is sponsored by Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) with nine co-sponsors in the Senate and Assembly. The bill has been introduced in the Senate and the Assembly.

The Senate's Committee on Transportation, Public Safety, and Veterans and Military Affairs is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the bill, according to staffers from the offices of Olsen and Sen. Jerry Petrowski (R-Marathon), chairman of the committee.

The bill would make it a class G felony — and with it up to 10 years in prison — to hide someone wanted for the most serious felonies. The bill would mean up to 31/2 years in prison for harboring a felon in less serious crimes.

An expected amendment to the bill would provide protection for domestic violence victims. Language protecting such victims became a sticking point in the 2012 version of the bill.

As that bill was originally written, a domestic violence victim could not be charged with aiding a fugitive if the fugitive earlier had been convicted of domestic violence.

Domestic violence victim advocates wanted to go further, allowing people who claimed to be victims to use that as a defense against a charge they helped the fugitive. Prosecutors said no exception for domestic violence was needed, asking that they have discretion on whether to charge someone in such a case.

Tony Gibart, spokesman for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, formerly known as Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said this week the organization wants people who willingly help felons to be held accountable, but the bill needs to be carefully crafted.

"We believe the Legislature can accomplish this important goal, while still protecting domestic violence victims who, out of fear for their or children's safety, are coerced into helping abusers," he said.

Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams said an exception for domestic violence victims or potential victims could create a loophole. He said the law could be crafted so being a domestic violence victim could be a defense against prosecution, but requiring the prosecution to prove someone was not a victim would make applying the law impracticable.

"Last time, it watered it down a lot," Williams, a longtime homicide prosecutor, said of the previous domestic violence amendment. "Someone could claim they were a victim of domestic violence because they were hiding a murderer or hiding evidence and we would have to disprove that. Anyone could claim that."