Here's what changed with Kansas' criminal laws after this year's legislative session

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, oversees the House Judiciary Committee, which helped handle SB 60.

Every year, lawmakers in Topeka have a chance to change the state's criminal code with very real impacts on how crime is defined in the state of Kansas.

Some of this year's changes were wrapped into one bill, Senate Bill 60, which was officially sent to Gov. Laura Kelly's desk last Tuesday. A few others have already become law on their own, through the governor's signature or a veto override. 

Here are some of the most significant criminal code legislation that have become law or are expected to, with some of them having been years in the making.

More:Gov. Laura Kelly may end Kansas’ participation in federal unemployment programs to incentivize workers

Removing spousal exception

Once signed into law, the crime of sexual battery will no longer exempt situations when it involves one's spouse. Requested by Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, the change "is simple and long overdue," said Julie Donelon, president of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault.

Marital rape is already illegal in the United States and Kansas, but the Sunflower State is still one of eight that allows for exceptions for sexually based crimes when the perpetrator is the victim's spouse. 

Advocates say it's a vestige from a past era as more and more data shows that sexual crimes aren't simply because of strangers. More than half of female sexual battery and rape victims report that it happened at the hands of an intimate partner, per CDC estimates.

"This archaic thinking dates back to 17th century common law, when a women’s unconditional sexual consent was considered part of the marital contract," said Sara Rust-Martin, with the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. "If we allow this spousal exception to continue then we are memorializing and honoring a belief and a system rooted in disenfranchisement, violence and misogyny."

More:Historical Zoom webinar Monday to mark 67th anniversary of Brown v. Board ruling

Some lawmakers expressed concern whether this would potentially make criminal instances where a married partner would try to initiate sex while the other wasn't in the mood. But ultimately, removal of the exemption had strong bipartisan support.

Efforts to do so failed in the previous two years, but this year, it was tucked into SB60 during negotiations and made it across the finish line in the last week of session.

Eluding a police officer

Eluding a police officer while in a stolen vehicle could soon get stiffer penalties.

Kansas is set to beef up penalties for fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer in certain situations, at the request of the state's law enforcement.

Currently, fleeing or eluding an officer is a class B misdemeanor on first conviction. Under the bill, doing so while operating a stolen motor vehicle would become a level 9 felony the first time.

This is to crack down on rising auto theft crimes, officers have said. At least 1 out of 5 attempt to elude cases in 2019 involved stolen vehicles, and those same cars can be used to commit other crimes.

"Defendants can escape culpability by claiming they were not aware a vehicle was stolen," said Todd Thompson, attorney for Leavenworth County. "More often than not, a vehicle that is attempting to elude law enforcement is stolen, but the suspects don’t take responsibility for stealing it."

More:Topeka has a $6 million surplus in its debt services fund. Here is how the city may spend it.

Elusion would also become a level 7 felony if it involved knowingly driving the wrong way on a highway, driving on an opposing lane or driving through an intersection that would result in a collision.

"We have seen multiple injuries and death in cases of vehicles eluding law enforcement," said Thompson. "We need more serious consequences when this occurs in order to be commensurate with the harm it causes."

The timing of this legislation came at an awkward point, as former Senate Majority Leader Gene Suellentrop, R-Wichita, was booted from leadership following his DUI incident, which involved fleeing the police and driving the wrong way.

Sexual extortion

The tenure of Rep. Aaron Coleman, D-Kansas City, has highlighted the issue of sexual extortion.

A new crime of sexual extortion could soon be made, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Owens, R-Hesston, and would be added to the Kansas Offender Registry Act.

It's defined as "communicating by any means a threat to injure the property or reputation of a person, commit violence against a person, or distribute an image or video of a person that is of a sexual nature or depicts such person in a state of nudity" with the intent of or causing someone to engage in a sexual activity or produce media of a sexual nature.

More:Aaron Coleman-related bill would create crime of sexual extortion

Sexual extortion would be a severity level 4 or 7 felony, depending on the circumstances. Juvenile offenders won't have to register as a offender, however.

Previous years to pass this failed, but it got approved this year in a similar manner to the spousal exception portion. 

The issue was particularly highlighted this year with the presence of rookie Rep. Aaron Coleman, D-Kansas City, Kan., who has a controversial history of allegations related to revenge porn and other actions.

"It is past time for Kansas to take a stand and protect the women of our state who are often the primary victims of sexual extortion,” Owens previously said. “It is of particular importance as a person who has committed this atrocious act will soon be sworn into the Kansas House."

Mistreatment of adult care residents

Pushed by the Kansas attorney general, House Bill 2121 raises the penalties for mistreating a dependent adult or elderly person in adult care homes.

If there's physical injury or unreasonable confinement or punishment involved, the penalty would be felony severity level 2 instead of level 5. If one is holding back and depriving an elder from treatment or necessary goods, the felony level goes from 8 to 5.

It's an important safeguard for adult care residents, patient advocates have said.

"Residents in adult care homes and other settings have particular vulnerabilities to intentional harm and neglect," said Margaret Farley, with Kansas Advocates for Better Care. "We hope that increasing the level of felony for perpetrators of mistreatment or neglect upon those who live in adult care homes will prevent such harm to others."

Stalking a minor

Already signed into law, House Bill 2071 toughens up against those stalking children under the age of 14, making such a level 7 felony on first conviction and level 4 afterward.

Johnson County Attorney Stephen Howe called this change necessary, prompted by a case of his.

In March of last year, there was a teacher who was covertly taking photos of students, he said. He was only able to charge the teacher with a class A misdemeanor for stalking. 

What the bill did was clarify victims didn't have to be aware of the stalking, which the teacher had tried to argue on. Additionally, it increased the punishment for stalking children, specifically, to a felony level.

"Children are typically unaware that this behavior is going on or that it is wrong, and therefore, they cannot protect themselves," Howe said. "Penalty enhancements help us in protecting the most vulnerable in society and hold offenders accountable."

Pipeline protesting

A water protector prays as he and others defend a sacred site near Turtle Island against the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Missouri River at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Also now law, and unlike the aforementioned, Senate Bill 172 has been controversial.

Pushed by the oil and gas industry, it eliminates the crime of tampering with a pipeline and four different crimes ― trespassing, aggravated trespassing, criminal damage and aggravated criminal damage to a critical infrastructure facility. Such facilities include those associated with petroleum, electric, chemical, water, natural gas, broadband, railroads, trucking, steel or oil.

More:Spurred by nationwide pipeline protests, Kansas lawmakers want to deter them further

Trespassing a facility is a Class A nonperson misdemeanor, while aggravated trespassing (with the intent to damage or tamper) is a severity level 7 nonperson felony. Criminal damage is a severity level 6 nonperson felony, and aggravated damage (with the intent to impede operations) is level 5. 

The new law is a response to the multiple environmental protests over pipelines that have popped up across the country over the years, though such cases haven't really happened in Kansas.

"There are proper ways in our society to protest things," said Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, who chairs the committee sponsoring the bill. "Peacefully protesting, not damaging property, like we've seen with many of the organized activities in the Pacific Northwest, that damaged billions of dollars of infrastructure and people's businesses."

But critics have said the imagery of violent climate protesters is simply untrue, and that the severe penalties are going to chill free speech.

The bill "is harmful because it strips us of our ability to let you know when something is not right. You're tying our hands and how we can communicate with you about injustices," said Adara Corbin, a young Kansan from the Wichita area. "People indigenous, by and large, alongside allies, assemble on critical infrastructure to protect their little means of livelihood, not  to cry about nothing."

To help appease bill opponents, a clause was added in to state that the bill would still protect the right for peaceful protesting by all Kansans and indigenous nations within the state.

Advance ballots

A ballot drop box was shown to The Topeka Capital-Journal at the Shawnee County Elections Office.

This one's also controversial and already law. 

Kansas lawmakers have made it a misdemeanor for anyone to return more than 10 advance ballots in an election cycle. Candidates can't deliver ballots on behalf of anyone, period, except family members.

Critics say this could have a disproportionate impact on elderly and disabled voters, who might prefer someone else turning in the ballot for them.

More:Critics cry foul over ballot law changes, claiming bill will suppress vote in Kansas

Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, promoted both bills as a series of logical changes. Republicans have said this is a common-sense move to promote election integrity and brushed aside arguments from Democrats that it would suppress the vote.

"They are trying to muddy the waters and make this look as bad as possible," Carpenter said during the caucus meeting. 

Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, said the bill "would criminalize successfully turning in a ballot."

"We should make it easier for people to vote," Woodard said on the floor. "Everything that it is nefarious is already a crime ... whether we pass this or not."

Other election crimes were also put into place. Falsely representing an election official is a felony, and so is altering a postmarked advance mail ballot.

It comes amid a national push by Republican legislatures nationwide to pass tighter election laws, egged on by former President Donald Trump, who has claimed falsely that the 2020 presidential results are inaccurate. 

Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Andrew Bahl contributed some reporting.