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Child safety tops new laws

By Kathy Jefcoats

A number of new laws go into effect in Georgia July 1 and one certain to impact young families raises the age of children to be confined to safety seats from 4 to 5.

Georgia State Patrol considers seat belt enforcement a priority so the new law is of interest to troopers, said Trooper First Class Larry Schnall.

"This is a particular new law that drivers need to be aware of," he said.

Law enforcement agencies across the state are participating in Click it or Ticket this summer, a seat belt awareness and enforcement program. Under the new law, drivers must provide proper restraint for child passengers appropriate to the child's weight and height.

Any child 6 or older can be restrained by a seat belt. Children under 6 can use a seat belt if they are over 4 feet 9 inches tall or weigh at least 40 pounds. Children who do not meet the physical requirements must be restrained in an appropriate safety seat.

Children should sit in the backseat if possible.

Schnall said the law applies to passenger cars, vans or pickup trucks. Vehicles exempt from having to use seats are taxicabs, public transit vehicles, and school buses and vans.

The Georgia Division of Public Health reports 35 children under 5 die every year in car accidents.

Another new law won't affect as many Georgians. A change in the habeas corpus law sets a statute of limitations for convicted felons restricting their right to protest the legality of incarceration to four years.

"It is not designated to deprive an inmate the right to file a writ of habeas corpus but limits the amount of time you have to do it," said Flint Circuit District Attorney Tommy Floyd. "In other words, if you're going to do it, do it."

Floyd said filings that come years after a conviction make it difficult, if not impossible, for a prosecutor to reconstruct a case in response.

The change also requires defendants to file the writ in the county where they were convicted instead of where they are incarcerated. The new requirement takes the burden off prosecutors who happen to work in the judicial district that houses a prison.

Once the law goes into effect, convicted felons will be advised during their sentencing that they have four years to object the legality of their incarceration. People convicted of misdemeanors have a year to file.

A second big change provides $57 million for an indigent defense system for all of Georgia's 49 judicial circuits. Reform to ensure all indigent defendants accused of a felony have legal representation started several years ago. Floyd said change was slow in part because public defenders are not a popular aspect of the criminal justice system.

"Public defenders are not popular but you've got to provide them," he said. "Prosecutors get a lot of legislative support but public defenders don't."

Gov. Perdue signed House Bill 1093 into law this session to require all defendants convicted of sex offenses involving a minor to register with the state Sex Offender Registry, despite a First Offender status. Sponsored by state Rep. Victor Hill, D-Riverdale, the law amends the state code section that allowed sex offenders pleading under the First Offender Act to avoid registering.

Another change in the law excludes sexual offenses against a victim 13 or older when the defendant enters a First Offender plea. The law applies to sentences imposed on or after July 1, 2004.

Senate Bill 297 amends Georgia code relating to the charge of fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer and impersonating a police officer. The change makes the crime a felony punishable by a $5,000 fine or one-five years in prison or both.

The felony provision applies when the suspect operates a vehicle in excess of 30 mph above the posted speed limit, strikes or collides with another vehicle or pedestrian, flees in traffic conditions that place the public in danger or leaves the state.