Earlier this month, the Judiciary Committee of the West Virginia House of Delegates voted to reject sending a Senate Bill to the House floor for a vote. The Senate Bill would have made it a misdemeanor to keep “burglar’s tools,” such as hammers or crowbars, if that person intended to use those tools to commit a burglary. The purpose of the Senate Bill was to give law enforcement in cities such as Huntington more options for combating drug-related crimes.
Currently 35 other states have similar legislation, including neighboring Ohio and Kentucky. The mayor and police chief of Huntington had lobbied Senators representing the area to consider the bill. They argued that, presently, if they saw an individual walking down the street at night with a bag of tools, they had no recourse to take action until that person had committed a crime. With legislation making carrying these tools a misdemeanor, police could take preventative action. The legislation was introduced on the first day of the legislative session and passed the Senate unanimously.
However, many in the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee were concerned with what they viewed as the vagueness and overbreadth of the legislation. One delegate mentioned using a screwdriver to start the wipers of her old car, while another stated that his rural constituents frequently kept tools in their vehicles as part of their livelihood. The delegates stated that they were also concerned that the legislation might not be constitutional, having the potential to prohibit a wide range of otherwise permissible behavior.
Neither the House of Delegates nor the Senate mentioned whether the legislation would be reintroduced any time soon, with modified language providing limits that addressed the House Judiciary Committee’s concerns.
We at the Wolfe Law Firm do not have an opinion about the merits of this bill. However, as a general matter, West Virginia criminal defense attorneys know how easily innocent people, or people who have committed small crimes, can be charged with committing crimes that they had nothing to do with, based on circumstantial evidence. Some people have even gone to prison based on these charges. The reasons are multifold. Some criminal suspects might be “indigent,” or too poor to hire an attorney, and so they are assigned a public defender who may be overworked, with too few resources. The public defender, even if doing as good a job as possible, might miss some very important evidence that a suspect was innocent.
Or that person, or a hired attorney with less experience, might care more about plea bargaining for a light sentence than about making the case for the criminal suspect’s innocence. He or she might fail to request that police evidence be stricken if it was obtained illegally — such as if the police entered the suspect’s home without a search warrant in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
It is important for any criminal attorney to make every effort to defend his or her client, to the extent the client permits, of course. After all, it is that person’s freedom on the line.