Daily Digest: Harassment, MNLARS, warrants and deer

Good morning, and congratulations for making it to Friday. Here’s the Digest.

1. Push begins again to change sexual harassment law. A decades old legal standard that requires sexual harassment to be “severe or pervasive” to be actionable in court. The standard is so high that most cases end before they even begin. “The courts have said it has to be hellish,” said Sheila Engelmeier, an attorney who has worked on these cases for decades. A bill moving in the Minnesota House would essentially eliminate that legal standard by adding a line to the state’s Human Rights Act that “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment…does not require the harassing conduct or communication to be severe or pervasive.” This would provide a signal to Minnesota judges, Engelmeier said, that they have more flexibility to hear cases. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill Thursday by a unanimous vote, and it is now heading to the House floor. The bill was introduced late last year and and passed overwhelmingly by the House, but it never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Back then, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said lawmakers needed more time to discuss the proposal. This week he said more groups have come forward with concerns about changing the standard. “It’s nonprofits, it’s government, it’s business all saying be careful what you do and how you do it,” he said. “I still think the bill that was put forward last year by the House and put forward this year by the House is not where we want to be, but the fact that we need to make sure our laws work related to sexual harassment, that part I’m open to.” (MPR News)

2. Walz wants more money for MNLARS. Gov. Tim Walz wants to spend another $15.7 million to continue repairs to the state’s vehicle licensing and registration system and add employees to handle the backlog of plate, title and license requests. Walz said Thursday he is submitting a request to legislators to spend millions more to the system called MNLARS, which has already cost the state about $100 million. Money for the project is scheduled to ramp down in March. After that, state officials have said they will only have cash to maintain the system — not improve it. And more improvements are needed to make the system easier to use. The overhaul of the system for handling licensing and registration has been fraught with delays, costly glitches and defects. It was the subject of numerous hearings at the Capitol in recent years, as Republican leadership in the House and Senate pressed former Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration on the system’s failures. Walz is still looking for a new commissioner to lead the Minnesota IT Services department, which has been responsible for much of the project. It is the only commissioner position he has not yet filled. The governor said in a news release Thursday that Kathy Tunheim, chief executive of Tunheim Partners, will oversee a selection committee for the state’s top IT job. A group of public and private IT experts will review applications — which can be submitted over the next month — and pass along finalist recommendations to Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. He also announced he is building on the IT advisory group Dayton started. (Star Tribune)

3. Another Walz comes out in favor of restoring felons’ voting rights. Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz is lending her voice to the felon voting issue that lawmakers will debate this session. Walz spoke Thursday at a Minnesota Second Chance Coalition rally at the state Capitol. She supports legislation the group is pushing that would restore the voting rights of convicted felons once they’ve completed serving jail time. Currently, felons must complete probation, parole and other terms of their release before they can vote again. Walz, who said it was her first public event as First Lady, urged those who’ve lost their voting rights to share their experiences. “I think stories are so important because they help us understand the humanity behind what just might look like an issue,” Walz said. “I’d like to encourage you to continue to tell your stories, because they are our greatest hope and our greatest power.” (MPR News)

4. ‘Reverse location’ search warrants and the law.  The suspects in an Eden Prairie home invasion last October wore gloves, dressed in black, and covered their faces with masks. But despite their efforts to remain unseen, a trail of evidence was left behind — not at the crime scene, but with Google. Knowing the Silicon Valley giant held a trove of consumer mobile phone location data, investigators got a Hennepin County judge to sign a “reverse location” search warrant ordering Google to identify the locations of cellphones that had been near the crime scene in Eden Prairie, and near two food markets the victims owned in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The scope of the warrant was so expansive in time and geography that it had the potential to gather data on tens of thousands of Minnesotans. The technique has caught the attention of civil liberties lawyers who worry such warrants — deployed increasingly by police in the Twin Cities and around the country — are a digital dragnet ripe for abuse, and that judges may not realize the technical details or broad scope of the searches they’re authorizing. (MPR News)

5. CWD in deer could become threat to humans. There is growing concern in the scientific and public health community that chronic wasting disease, which is killing deer in Minnesota, Wisconsin and elsewhere, could jump to people someday. That unsettling news surfaced at a hearing Thursday at the Minnesota Capitol, where a number of experts from the University of Minnesota pressed upon lawmakers that the disease should be treated as a public health issue — a major expansion of its current scope as mostly a wildlife and hunting concern. The issue is especially pressing for Minnesota, where wildlife officials are tracking the state’s largest outbreak of CWD yet in deer in the southeast portion of the state. No person is known to have gotten sick from eating or handling a CWD-infected deer. But scientists have always been wary of it because the disease is spread via extremely hardy protein cells, known as prions, making it similar to mad cow disease, which did jump from cows to people. Mad cow disease is also fatal and without a cure. (Pioneer Press)

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