The legal landscape changes in Tennessee on Monday. Most of the new laws that go into effect July 1 likely won’t be noticed by average citizens — at least not for a while.
But starting well before the crack of dawn, one new law of the 140 that passed this year will potentially impact drivers at every busy intersection, on every small town street and anyone steering on the 1,000-plus miles of interstates crisscrossing Tennessee.
The new distracted driving law — better known as the cellphone law — probably received as much notice as any during the first half of the 111th General Assembly, when not accounting for legislation driven by nationally funded lobbyists.
Judging by casual observance in recent days around Blount County and beyond, it’s not unusual to spot drivers on their cellphones while navigating between the white lines.
It’s not just talking on cellphones, or even texting, that the new law restricts. The new distracted driving law makes it illegal to drive while holding or supporting a cellphone or mobile device with your body. The law also bans reaching for a mobile device by getting out of a seated driving position or not correctly wearing a seatbelt. Hands-free devices are allowed.
A violation will be a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $50 fine for a first offense, $100 for a third or higher offense or for causing a wreck, or $200 in active work or school zones. Drivers still can use hand-held devices if they are legally stopped or parked, or leave their cars standing.
Tennessee joins 18 other states with hand-held cellphone use bans for drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The issue was fiercely contested in the Republican-led legislature, with supporters calling the ban an important safety push and opponents calling it government overreach.
Other new laws
As of Monday, Tennessee also will bar ministers ordained online from performing marriages. The change already has drawn a federal lawsuit. The Universal Life Church Monastery Storehouse, which offers online ordinations, is seeking to block the new law.
Another group that offers online ordination, Seattle-based American Marriage Ministries, has aimed to get around the ban. The group has offered in-person ordination training in Tennessee, media outlets have reported.
A new law that restricts the rights of sex offenders also was supposed to kick in Monday, but a judge has temporarily blocked it.
The law, which is being challenged in a federal lawsuit, bars people convicted of a sex offense against a child younger than 12 years old from living with, visiting overnight or being alone with their own minor children. Lawmakers passed the change this year without any “no” votes.
Tennessee also is set to remove a layer of court review before death row inmates are executed.
Death penalty cases will no longer be reviewed by Tennessee’s Court of Criminal Appeals and will automatically be sent to the state Supreme Court starting Monday.
Lawmakers say the change offers a quicker path for victim justice, though death penalty reviews by the Court of Criminal Appeals had been taking under a year. Federal courts account for most of the time it takes for death penalty cases to wend through the appeals process, sometimes up to three decades.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee also will see several of his priorities enacted. An amusement tax on gym memberships is set to disappear; the governor’s office of faith-based and community initiatives will be established; and the $180 fee will be dropped for people looking to have certain criminal offenses expunged from their records.
Sports betting and more
A law to legalize online sports betting in Tennessee also is taking effect. But don’t expect any bets to be placed on Monday. It wasn’t even an issue state legislators were eager to address, but one mandated by Congress. The state still must create rules for the program and members must be appointed to a new regulatory board. There has been no clear indication when the state will be ready for companies to start up their betting apps.
Other top policies that passed during this year’s legislative session included a voucher-like education proposal and a plan to draft a waiver asking the federal government for permission to fund Tennessee’s Medicaid program through a block grant.
Both of these laws went into immediate effect when Lee signed them earlier this year. Like the sports betting law, however, the state is still working on implementing the laws. The voucher-style program is set to kick in with the student funding by the 2021-22 school year.
Punishment for a conviction of aggravated rape of a child also increases from “15 to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000” to “life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
Another new law requires each state institution of higher education to develop and implement a suicide prevention plan and provide the plan to students, faculty and staff at least once each semester.
Other laws will come into play only if local governments take action.
For example, the handgun carry permit renewals law provides that a local government agency can contract with the state Department of Safety to be authorized to renew handgun carry permits and collect a fee of $4 to cover administrative costs.