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Multiple laws kick in today in New York State

ALBANY – Friday marked a busy day for new laws in New York, with stronger penalties kicking in for using hand-held electronic devices while driving and a new ban on the sale or distribution of shark fins used mainly by higher-end Chinese restaurants, as well as the signing of a new statute removing loopholes convicted drunk drivers have been able to use to avoid mandatory ignition lock starting devices.

A provision contained in the 2013 state budget increasing penalties for texting while driving or using any kind of hand-held device while behind the wheel formally took effect Friday to address what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said has become a “frightening epidemic” of distracted driving.

The new fines come after the state earlier this year increased the number of penalty points on licenses for violating the state’s electronic device laws while driving and applied automatic suspensions to drivers with probationary or junior licenses if caught not using a hands-free device while driving.

The new penalties, effective Friday, increase the minimum fine from $50 to a maximum of $150 for a first-time offense for using a hand-held device while driving; it rises to a $400 fine for three or more offenses within an 18-month period.

Also Friday, Cuomo signed into law, effective Nov. 1, a measure to strengthen a 2009 law passed after a horrific downstate auto accident that killed a young girl who was in a vehicle driven by the drunk friend of her mother’s.

That law required ignition interlock devices – breath test devices that must be passed for a car to start – being placed on vehicles owned by convicted drunk drivers. But motorists found ways around the law, and recent state statistics showed 70 percent of the 45,000 people required to install ignition locks failed to do so. In some cases, they gave ownership of their cars to a friend or relative as a way to get around the ignition lock requirement.

The new law increases from six months to one year the minimum time period for the locks to be installed upon a drunk driving conviction, though State Senate officials say judges can reduce the period to six months if it is proved the convicted person used the devices. State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Charles Fuschillo, a Long Island Republican, said offenders who say they do not own a car must now do so under oath in court – opening those individuals up to additional charges if they lie under oath and drive during the restricted period.

Cuomo signed into law a ban on the sale or distribution of shark fins, which can cost restaurants $800 or more per pound and are considered a delicacy served often in soups at big banquets or weddings. The Buffalo News published a story Friday on the legislation. Wildlife groups said fishermen often just cut off the fins on a shark and toss the live fish back into the ocean to die.

The new shark fin ban, which does not affect two popular dogfish species that heavily populate Atlantic Ocean fishing areas, takes effect next July 1.

As bills were being signed or enactment dates of others kicked in Friday, advocates in Buffalo pressed Cuomo to sign a bill calling for stronger punishment for repeat child abusers. The effort has been led by relatives of Jay J. Bolvin, a Western New York child who today still suffers from the beatings he endured at the hands of his father, who is in prison. The new legislation, which Cuomo is expected to sign before Wednesday’s deadline for his decision, changes the current law allowing aggravated assault charges against someone abusing a child 11 years of age or younger if the offender was previously convicted within the prior three years. The new bill changes that “look-back” period to 10 years. That would have led to a possible 10-year maximum sentence for Jeremy Bolvin, the boy’s father, instead of the four-year maximum sentence he received.

“This has been a long and ongoing fight for over two years,” said State Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat who has pushed the bill and appeared with theg Bolvin child and his relatives Friday at an event promoting the measure. “Our efforts are to stop child abuse, and it starts with Jay-J’s law.”