New Year, New Laws

California State Capitol courtesy Flickr user Andrew Fitzhugh

California State Capitol courtesy Flickr user Andrew Fitzhugh

The coming of a new year means a mess of new laws. For most jurisdictions here in the United States, January 1 is when many laws passed in the previous year go into effect.  And even though 2013 was one of the most unproductive years for legislation at the federal level, it was another thing entirely in the 50 states.  In fact, the states collectively had an estimated 40,000 new laws go into effect at the start of the year.  Now, to be fair, many of these are likely to be relatively minor changes to laws, or bills that make technical changes.  Some, however, are pretty significant and even controversial:

  • Colorado, you may have heard, decided to go ahead and legalize the recreational use of marijuana. (The drug remains illegal at the federal level, however, setting up an interesting tension for law enforcement there.)

  • Illinois and Oregon have both made it illegal for minors to use tanning beds.  Illinois has also passed a “lemon pets” law, allowing pet purchasers to return their erstwhile companions when there are certain undisclosed illnesses.  (I had never heard of this idea before, though it is apparently quite mainstream.  The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that 21 states have some sort of “lemon pet” law.)

  • California has generated some pretty intense discussion and controversy over their new laws regarding the rights of transgender students.

For those who are interested, the National Conference of State Legislatures has a rather handy guide reciting the major new laws going into effect this year, nicely broken down  into various categories.  The Washington Post has also put together a top-10 of sorts of what they consider the most interesting new laws.  And PBS has a fascinating quiz on some of the more eccentric new laws.

To me, though, the most interesting and, I dare say, most hopeful new law doesn’t seem to be on any top-10 lists.  It would be unfortunate, though, if people didn’t learn about it.  I’m talking about California’s new law helping victims of domestic violence. The new law allows victims of domestic violence the freedom to break a residential lease much easier.  In effect, it helps victims of domestic abuse escape the violence they may be trapped in. In the past, victims needed a court order or police report to break their lease, but not anymore, according to state Sen. Mark Leno, who helped draft the bill:

You can now talk to a medical professional or a health care provider or a counselor who deals with domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking, and they can write a statement, which will be legally respected under law and by the landlord, so that you can break your lease and move on.

As we’ve discussed on these pages before, laws can often become barriers to victims seeking to break the cycle of domestic violence.  The fear of serious economic consequences for breaking a lease (evictions and lowered credit scores make it harder to find a new place to live; collections for unpaid rent can seriously limit the ability to make ends meet, especially for low-income victims), means a victim may just stay in a bad relationship.  And while this kind of law won’t solve all the problems of domestic abuse, or make all the legal barriers go away, it is a good first step.

And it reminds us that society–and our elected lawmakers–can still come together for the common good.

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