New 2009 laws impact driving, trees, solar panels

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Californians face a laundry list of new state laws scheduled to go into effect at some point during the next year, from placing new restrictions on driving practices, providing relief for military veterans to settling debates over trees versus solar panels.

Several laws were authored by State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), including SB 640, which closes a loophole in the law that prevents victims of childhood sexual abuse from seeking justice later in life.

Currently, childhood victims of abuse may bring suit anytime up till age 26, or within three years of the date the victim discovers the impact of the abuse (whichever is later). However, a 2007 law, the Tort Claims Act, requires victims to file civil action against a public entity within six months of the abuse, inadvertently benefiting organizations like public school districts that choose to ignore misconduct by their staff.

The resolution of this legal conflict by SB 640 could potentially impact victims in the Thomas Beltran case at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica.

Robin Sax, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted Beltran, said she thinks SB 640 is designed to bring civil law in line with criminal law.

“Currently, you have a decade, and in some instances even more time, to bring criminal charges in a child predator case,” Sax said. “It sounds like this civil law is designed to meet that time frame.”

Simitian also authored SB 28, which prohibits text messaging while driving, set to go into affect New Year’s Day (Simitian also authored the hands-free cell phone law that went into effect July 2008). Text messaging while driving has been blamed for causing a number of vehicular accidents. The conductor of the deadly Metrolink train accident in Northridge last September allegedly was texting minutes before the crash.

Traffic fines in 2009 will cost more in another motor vehicle law. Senate Bill 1407 will raise the fees on traffic tickets by $35, “fix-it” tickets (given for automobiles with operational infractions, such as broken taillights) by $15, parking tickets by $3 and court costs to attend traffic school by $25. These fees will be used to help pay for construction and rehabilitation of courthouses.

Assembly Bill 1165 changes driving under the influence laws, creating a new authority to suspend a driver’s license for one year and impound the vehicle of a person driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.01 or greater while on post-DUI probation.

Three new laws are designed to help military veterans. SB 1401 creates outreach programs for veterans to learn about and seek treatment for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Traumatic brain injury is often referred to as the “signature injury” of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, commonly caused by concussions received from improvised explosive devices. The U.S. Army estimates that one in eight returning soldiers from Iraq suffer from PTSD. SB 1401 ensures that returning service men and women are instructed about the causes, symptoms, impacts and treatment options for these injuries.

Senate Bill 1455 enables family members who have lost an active duty member of the U.S. Armed Forces to obtain a Gold Star Family license plate honoring the sacrifices their families have endured. The Department of Veterans Affairs will fund the start-up costs for this bill, using private donations, and the bill provides waivers of some fees for Gold Star families obtaining the plate.

The Family Medical Leave Act has been amended through House Resolution 4986 to cover spouses, children and parents of active-duty military members, allowing them up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for loved ones who have become seriously ill or injured while on active duty.

California’s burgeoning “green” movement is defining regulations that affect solar power and chemical additives in homes and workplaces.

Senate Bill 1399 addresses the “trees versus solar power” debate, which drew international attention earlier this year when two California homeowners were sued because their trees cast shade on their neighbor’s solar panels.

Sunnyvale residents Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett considered themselves environmentalists and tree lovers before their neighbors brought criminal prosecution against them, forcing them to chop off the tops of their redwood trees. SB 1399 provides protection for trees and shrubs planted before solar panels are installed and eliminates criminal prosecution in favor of civil arbitration as a penalty for violation of the law.

Two bills, comprising a “green chemistry” package, will provide Californians with information on thousands of toxic chemicals found in homes and workplaces. SB 509 would establish the Toxics Information Clearinghouse, which would be responsible for collecting and distributing data on all toxic and hazardous chemicals found in commonly used products ranging from lead-tainted toys to linens infused with toxic flame retardant.

Assembly Bill 1879 authorizes the Department of Toxics Substances Control to regulate chemicals in products that pose known hazards to consumers, creating a reviewing process for products, assessing potential alternatives and taking necessary steps to protect the environment with actions ranging from further study to outright product bans.

Gov. Schwarzenegger said in a press release, “This bipartisan package of environmental legislation propels California to the forefront of the nation and the world with the most comprehensive Green Chemistry program ever established.”

And, finally, in a nod to what some anti-regulation proponents term as a “Nanny State” law, chain restaurants with more than 20 facilities in California will be required to post nutritional information on all food it serves, including calorie counts, total grams of carbohydrates, total grams of saturated fat and total milligrams of sodium.