Plethora of new Mississippi laws taking effect

Published 2:17 am Sunday, July 2, 2006

Waiting in line to apply for a building permit or renew a car tag?

You’d better not light up a cigarette.

Starting this weekend, it’s illegal to smoke in any city hall, county courthouse or other public building in Mississippi — including college classrooms.

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While many cities and counties have long had their own local policies to ban smoking in public buildings, the state mandate is one of several new Mississippi laws that take effect Saturday.

Hollandale City Clerk Helen Johnson says her small Delta town has posted “No Smoking” signs in city hall for years, and the policy is politely enforced. Folks who light up inside city hall usually get a tap on the shoulder and a nice reminder to step outside.

And while Johnson is happy to have clean air inside, she’s not crazy about the trash some smokers leave outside.

“I don’t like seeing those ugly cigarette butts all over the place,” she said.

Some other new Mississippi laws would ban hog-dog fighting and expand people’s rights to use deadly force against intruders to their homes or cars.

The new laws were passed by legislators and signed by Gov. Haley Barbour earlier this year. Some bills from the 2006 session became law when Barbour signed them, including one that eliminates indecent exposure penalties for mothers who breast-feed their babies in public.

A stricter new seat belt law took effect May 27, at the beginning of the long Memorial Day weekend. Failure to wear a seat belt is now a primary offense, meaning a law-enforcement officer can pull over a vehicle simply if a driver or passenger is not strapped in.

For years, Mississippi had a secondary-offense seat belt law, and officers had to have another reason to pull someone over, such as speeding or a broken tail light.

Most bills passed and signed this past legislative session become law on July 1 — the first day of the new state budget year.

Mississippi’s new “deadly force” law is similar to one enacted by Florida last year. It says a person who uses deadly force to protect his home, business or vehicle is presumed to have acted prudently and would be immune from civil liability. It prohibits civilians from claiming self-defense if deadly force is used against a law officer.

State Sen. Gloria Williamson, D-Philadelphia, was among those who criticized the new law, saying it would allow people to shoot first and ask questions later.

“We are sending the wrong message to our children about carrying guns,” Williamson said.

Senate Judiciary A Committee Chairman Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, said the new law “does nothing but help law-abiding citizens protect themselves.”

The National Rifle Association promoted the deadly force bill in Mississippi and other states. Supporters called it the “castle doctrine” — as in, a man’s home is his castle.

“When you’re confronted by a criminal, you don’t have the luxury of time,” Chris W.Cox, NRA’s chief lobbyist, said in a news release. “This bill states that if victims choose to stand their ground and fight, their decision will not be second-guessed by the state of Mississippi.”

The NRA says nine other states have enacted similar laws this year — Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

In New Hampshire, lawmakers narrowly passed a deadly force bill, but it was vetoed by Democratic Gov. John Lynch, whose position was supported by police and prosecutors.

Mississippi is one of at least three states — joining Alabama and South Carolina — with a new ban on hog-dog fighting.

Hog-dog “rodeos” started proliferating in Pearl River County and other parts of south Mississippi after Louisiana banned the fights in recent years.

In the rodeos, pit bulls or other dogs are put into pens with wild hogs that are left mostly defenseless after their tusks have been sawed off. The events usually take place on isolated, rural property, and onlookers wager on how long it will take the dogs to pin down the hogs.

The new law also, for the first time, sets penalties for cruelty to cats. Sen. Bob Dearing, D-Natchez, said a constituent asked him to give cats the same protection that dogs have enjoyed under state law.

Some new Mississippi laws that take effect Saturday:

ADOPTION: A tax credit of up to $2,500 for expenses related to adopting a child.

CONSUMERS: Small-loan companies allowed to sell automobile club memberships.

EDUCATION: High-performing school districts become exempt from some operating standards; high school students can earn college credits; districts required to offer advanced placement courses; districts to expand use of “virtual schools” with online or distance learning; mentoring programs to be established in middle schools.

GUNS: Firearms can be kept in an individual’s vehicle as long as the parking area is not gated or otherwise blocked from public access.

HISTORY: New commission will develop and find resources for civil rights and human rights curriculums in public schools.

MILITARY FUNERALS: Disruptive protests are banned at military funerals, memorial services or burials.

PHYSICAL THERAPY: Licensed physical therapists can provide their services without a prescription or a referral from a health care provider, under certain circumstances.

VULNERABLE ADULTS: Protection expanded for nursing home patients or others vulnerable adults under the state’s sex crime laws.