- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - The Vermont Legislature has approved a bill making it illegal to take “substantial steps” to threaten to kill or kidnap groups of people, legislation aimed at closing a loophole exposed when the state Supreme Court ruled a man charged with planning a school shooting in Fair Haven did not go far enough for it to be considered a crime.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott is expected to sign into law the bill which received final approval on Monday. Spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley said Scott advocated for a change to Vermont’s criminal law after the most serious charges were dismissed against Poultney teenager Jack Sawyer.

The Vermont Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says the Legislature may have moved too fast without considering potential limitations of First Amendment rights.

“We caution the legislature and think it is not the best practice to react to one incident without taking the time to consider and study what the implications of this would be,” Chloe White, policy director for the ACLU of Vermont, said Wednesday.

The bill came in response to an alleged plot to commit a school shooting by Sawyer, 18. He initially was charged with attempted aggravated murder and other offenses that could have resulted in a sentence of life in prison without parole. Police seized a journal belonging to Sawyer that detailed his plan to kill more people than in any previous school shooting. Authorities were alerted by a friend of Sawyer‘s, who turned over social media messages in which Sawyer outlined the plot.

The initial charges against him were dropped after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled Sawyer’s preparations for the shooting did not meet Vermont’s definition of a crime. Sawyer later was charged with two misdemeanors and released on bail.

The Fair Haven case also prompted the Legislature to pass the most restrictive gun laws in Vermont history. A judge used one of those laws to prevent Sawyer from buying firearms in the future.

The bill defines “substantial steps” as any conduct that corroborates a person’s intent to murder multiple people or threaten a civilian population with mass destruction, mass killings or kidnappings.

Those convicted under the proposed law could face a maximum of 20 years in prison.

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