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New laws on rape kits and tampons take effect on Jan. 1 in Maryland and Virginia

An evidence bag from a sexual assault case.
An evidence bag from a sexual assault case. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

Almost five years after the Maryland General Assembly called for an inventory of the state’s untested rape kits, police will now be required to submit such kits for testing. The measure is one of the state and local bills in Maryland and Virginia that become law as of Jan. 1.

Virginians will see a small break on the sales tax when they purchase tampons and other menstrual supplies. The law does not eliminate the 5.3 percent sales tax on those items — which Maryland did in 1980 — but it will lower the rate to 2.5 percent, the same rate applied to food.

The lower rate also will apply to other “essential personal hygiene products,” including diapers, disposable undergarments, pads, menstrual cups and pantyliners.

Also in Virginia, Loudoun County will impose a $100 license tax on motor vehicles that do not have current Virginia license plates and a $250 penalty on car and truck owners who don’t register their vehicles within 60 days of moving to the state.

In Maryland’s Montgomery County, the Law Enforcement Trust and Transparency Act takes effect, making it mandatory for all police-involved deaths to be investigated by an outside law enforcement agency. Montgomery is the first major jurisdiction in the Washington region to adopt this policy, although other states, including Wisconsin and Utah, have similar requirements.

Under the legislation, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) is required to search for a partner agency to conduct the investigations. Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando (D-At Large), who spearheaded the bill, said an agency has not yet been selected.

In Prince George’s County, a law takes effect Jan. 3 that will eliminate fees for businesses applying for food truck licenses. Previously, food truck owners had to pay $500 if they operated for fewer than two months and $3,500 if they operated for more than two months. The new law will also reduce the inspection fee for food trucks, charged by the fire department, from $75 to $35.

D.C. officials said no major new laws are taking effect in the city on Jan. 1.

Maryland’s rape-kit testing law is the latest move by the General Assembly to address a long-standing backlog and how police departments handle evidence in rape cases.

In 2017, the legislature passed a bill requiring law enforcement to keep newly collected rape kits for 20 years and to notify a survivor 60 days before a kit is destroyed.

The 2019 legislative action was twofold. The General Assembly passed a bill to require testing, and it also fenced off $3.5 million in the budget to help local police departments pay for the tests.

“This is really a sea change in the handling of sexual assault cases,” said Del. Shelly L. Hettleman (D-Baltimore County), the lead sponsor of the bill.

Hettleman attributed the actions taken over the past several years on rape investigations to the national #MeToo movement, increased discussion about sexual assaults and more women serving in the Maryland General Assembly.

“I feel like we’ve made great progress, taking the crimes and the survivors of these crimes more seriously,” she said.

But Maryland has been slower than most states to address its backlog. The number of untested kits has nearly doubled, from 3,700 to 7,000, since the state’s first audit in 2017.

Hettleman said the legislation requiring the testing, along with the funding to pay for it, should go a long way toward dealing with the backlog and new rape kits going forward. She noted that some of the backlogged kits will not be tested. Under the law, there are exceptions if the victim does not consent to testing, there is clear evidence disproving the allegation or the suspect is already in jail for assault.

A 2018 bill that bans retail stores from selling puppies and kittens in Maryland is also scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.

But it is unclear whether the ban will stay in effect. The legislation is the subject of a lawsuit filed by several pet-store owners, who are challenging whether the bill is constitutional and have requested a stay to block the law from being enforced.

Jonathan Kagan, an attorney representing the pet-store owners, said a preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Jan. 9. The judge is expected to rule on the stay, Kagan said. Until the court makes a ruling on the motion, the law will remain in effect.

Laura Vozzella in Richmond and Rachel Chason, Fenit Nirappil and Rebecca Tan in Washington contributed to this report.

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