- Associated Press - Thursday, June 26, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina House members gave preliminary approval Thursday to legislation that would make it a crime for prisoners to possess cellphones and make it easier for state crime laboratory workers to testify.

The legislation makes several changes to criminal justice laws, particularly by raising several penalties. Smuggling a cellphone to a prisoner would be raised from a misdemeanor to a low-grade felony, with confinement for the defendant possible on a first offense. It also makes it a crime for a prisoner to possess cellphones. Now, prisoners are only subject to administrative penalties.

The cellphone changes are in response to the kidnapping of the father of an assistant Wake County prosecutor. Authorities say the crime was initiated by an imprisoned gang member who used a phone to contact his associates. The father was rescued by federal agents in Atlanta in April.

The measure also allows forensic and chemical analysts to testify remotely by video for criminal or impaired-driving cases, starting in September. Supporters said it will give lab workers more time to solve crimes.

Provisions also would make it a felony for someone to illegally operate an amusement ride that leads to serious injury or death or for someone who sprays graffiti if the damage exceeds $1,000 or the person is a repeat offender. The bill makes it an unfair trade practice for a print or Internet publisher to post mug shots of criminal suspects, then solicit fees from the suspects to have them removed.

The measure passed on a largely party-line vote of 75-39 after Democrats objected to a committee amendment that would move the State Bureau of Investigation to the Department of Public Safety. The SBI currently is housed within the department run by Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper. The public safety department is a Cabinet agency of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

The transfer already is in the House budget bill, but it was reinserted in Thursday’s measure because the budget negotiations are being delayed due to differences with the Senate and McCrory over Medicaid spending. A floor amendment to remove the transfer failed.

Democrats view the SBI transfer as politically motivated, since Cooper is preparing for a 2016 bid for governor. Republicans disagree, saying the idea would bring more independence to the bureau. The SBI director, while appointed by the governor, would be subject to General Assembly confirmation and serve for eight years.

A final House vote could come Monday.

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