Bill gives TN judges more power in sentencing, experts say law is unconstitutional

Gov. Bill Haslam is weighing what to do about a controversial immigration bill.

State lawmakers are keeping an eye on the clock as time ticks down for Gov. Bill Haslam to act on a bill granting state judges new sentencing authority.

The bill allows judges to add more time to a felony sentence if a defendant is in the country illegally.

Right now the state of Arizona is involved in a legal battle over a similar issue.

Tennessee lawmakers say this bill would be a hard deterrent against crime. Immigration advocates say it's a burden on local governments that will drive a wedge between the community and the legal system.

READ: House Bill 1041

Haslam has three options when it comes to the sentencing enhancement bill before his desk. He can sign it, veto the bill or allow it to pass into law without his signature.

Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law professor Stewart Harris believes whether it's signed or not, this bill might not be around for long.

"My initial reaction is that it's probably unconstitutional,” said Harris.

According to Harris, the U.S. Constitution governs America's immigration laws, not states. That's one reason states don't typically pass immigration laws.

"Should California have one set of rules and Massachusetts another? What about all the landlocked states, should they have their own rules as well? That’s why Congress has authority over immigration,” explained Harris.

State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey of Knoxville believes this bill isn't an immigration issue.

"The courts are going to decide if something is constitutional or not if it's challenged. I don't believe this really has to do with immigration, it has to do with crime,” said Massey.

Massey says residence is already a factor when considering a person's bond. She believes judges should have all the information about a defendant available to them before sentencing.

"They’re already going to jail, they have committed a crime, they've been convicted of a crime and this is just a factor along with another factor determining how long the sentence is,” she said.

Megan Conley with Allies of Knoxville's Immigrant Neighbors says immigration is and should remain a federal matter.

"This legislation asks judges who are not experienced in immigration matters to make assumptions about a defendant’s immigration status, which will inevitably result in racial profiling and other civil rights violations," Conley said in a statement to 10News.

This bill passed the House and Senate on May 9. The governor has 10 working days to take action or allow it to pass without his signature.

© 2017 WBIR.COM


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