Ringing In The New Laws Of 2003

new laws for 2003, showing January calendar with a gavel and a scale of justice. AP / CBS

Out with soaring jury awards, potentially dangerous mercury thermometers and youngsters motor-boating without training.

In with insurance coverage for substance abuse, donation limits for judges' election campaigns and devices that prevent drivers from starting their car when they're drunk.

Along with resolutions, hangovers and hours of football games, New Year's Day brings the start of hundreds of new laws on everything from the minimum wage to efforts to combat terrorism.

Several states whose budgets were ravaged by the economy have increased taxes. Indiana drivers will pay 3 cents more tax a gallon on gas, Kansas smokers face 9 cents more for a pack of cigarettes, and most workers in Nebraska will pay more income tax.

Others went the other direction. New Hampshire eliminated the inheritance tax at a $50 million hit to its budget, Florida increased a property tax exemption for disabled veterans, and Oklahoma gave tax breaks for construction of homes in rural areas and pollution control at oil refineries. Voters in Oregon ordered an increase in the minimum wage from $6.50 to $6.90.

Money concerns of another sort - sky-high jury awards - persuaded Mississippi lawmakers to limit punitive damages in product liability lawsuits. Starting Jan. 1, the most a company can be forced to pay will be $20 million, with less for smaller companies. Mississippi also set a $500,000 cap for pain-and-suffering damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, rising to $1 million in 2017.

Crime, as always, got attention.

Illinois made it a felony, punishable by a three-year prison term, to incite others to commit a hate crime - a law inspired by Benjamin Smith, a white supremacist whose spree of violence against minorities in 1999 killed two people and injured nine.

North Carolina decided to let victims of domestic violence keep their addresses off drivers licenses and other public documents. Instead, they can use the state Attorney General's Office, which forwards any mail.

"It's important to put as many barriers as possible between domestic violence abusers and their victims," said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Drunk driving and substance abuse drew an array of measures.

Illinois authorities can seize the vehicles of people who drive when their license is revoked for drunken driving, and New Hampshire now can arrest underage drinkers if they test positive for intoxication - not only if they possess alcohol.

New Mexico, joining at least 11 other states, will use technology that requires repeat drunk-drivers to be tested for intoxication each time they try to start their car. A driver must blow into the so-called ignition interlock device, which then determines the presence of alcohol and won't let the car start if the driver is drunk.

"When you're an alcoholic and recovering, you get the urge to drink just on the spur of the moment," said New Mexico state Sen. Phil Griego, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober since his second arrest for drunken driving. "This little instrument helped me maintain my sobriety."

Worries about terrorism spurred several states to action, with Illinois making it a felony to trespass at a nuclear facility or to use a fake or invalid driver's license to try to board an airplane.

The anthrax attacks in 2001 inspired a New Hampshire law to make it a felony to deliver biological or chemical weapons to a public place, threaten someone with such a weapon or commit hoaxes involving such materials.

Health and safety were the focus of a number of new laws.

Connecticut will phase in a ban on the sale of mercury thermometers. New Hampshire requires insurers to provide coverage for substance abuse, several eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Young motor-boaters in Nevada will have to complete a boating safety course.

Tennessee is requiring pharmacies to report prescriptions to a central data base, where a committee will seek to detect patterns of drug abuse.

"We hope ultimately to be able to identify patients early on and prevent them from getting into an abusing situation," said Baeteena Black, executive director of the Tennessee Pharmacists Association.

North Carolina restricted individual election contributions for state appellate court judges to $1,000. It's part of a public financing plan that also will allow judges to choose to finance their campaigns almost entirely with public funds, rather than donations.

With many new laws, one person's victory left someone else disgruntled.

A law aiming to improve roads in east-central Illinois targeted Amish horse-drawn buggies, allowing townships to charge a fee of up to $50 per driver.

"I can't deny the horses are gouging the roads, but I pay taxes just like everyone else," said Reuben Schrock, a horseshoe fitter. "Are you going to tell me those trucks roaring up and down our roads aren't causing more damage?"

  • Francie Grace

Comments