Feb 20, 2016

Utah committee passes bigamy bill spurred by 'Sister Wives,' but with lessened penalties

NATE CARLISLE

The Salt Lake Tribune

February 19, 2016

"We would like to have the same laws applied to us that are applied to monogamists," Shepp told the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

The committee, over objections from Shepp and a few other polygamists who testified, opted to approve HB281 and forward it to the full House.

But the committee made a major amendment. The bill would make bigamy a class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year in jail. Bigamy has historically been a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, and an earlier draft of the bill kept it that.

The hearing included personal stories about polygamy and mentions from three legislators that they have polygamous ancestors.

That included the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who said one of his great-great grandfathers was a polygamist who was jailed in Illinois.

Noel's bill redefines bigamy as purporting to marry "and" cohabiting with another person while married to someone else or with someone else who is married.

That could be enough of a change to make moot a lawsuit currently being considered by an appeals court. Kody Brown and his four wives sued Utah in federal court over the statute that defined bigamy as purporting to marry "or" cohabit with another person.

A judge in Salt Lake City struck down the statute in 2013, saying it was used to target polygamists and not other people living together. The state appealed. The 10th Circuit Court in Denver heard arguments in January and has not yet ruled.

The Browns, who are the focus of the TLC show "Sister Wives," did not appear at Friday's hearing.

Noel on Friday said he was trying to comply with the Utah Constitution, which prohibits polygamy, while trying to allow polygamists who otherwise follow the law to come out of hiding. He said he expects Utah prosecutors will continue policies of only prosecuting polygamists when they commit other crimes like physical abuse or fraud.

"There will still be prosecution under the statute," Noel said, "But it will most likely be a dual approach."

Rep. Earl Tanner, R-West Jordan, was another legislator who said he had polygamous ancestors. He wondered whether HB281 was still too harsh for polygamists who do not commit other crimes.

"Those of us with family histories with it understand that it depends on the way you do it," Tanner said.

Brady Williams, who was the patriarch on the short-lived reality television show "My Five Wives," testified that he used to be a bishop in the Apostolic United Brethren. He said multiple mothers came to him saying their children had been molested, and he wanted them to call law enforcement.

"But they were terrified to do it," Williams told lawmakers. "They say, 'We know what happens. They take all my children.' "

Tanner tried to amend the bill to make bigamy an infraction, which carries no incarceration and a maximum fine of $750. The committee defeated the motion 5-4. Minutes later, Tanner was the only committee member to vote against recommending the bill.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

http://www.sltrib.com/home/3553431-155/utah-lawmakers-to-consider-bigamy-bill

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