A stone bearing Sheena Kiska's photo marks her grave in a South Bend cemetery. The woman was murdered in her Bristol apartment in 2008. Now, a local legislator is pushing for 'Sheena's Law' to protect renters who fear staying in their rental units.
Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES
INDIANAPOLIS — 'Sheena's Law' appears to be dying in the General Assembly, but the bill's author says he's not giving up.
Rep. Craig Fry, D-Mishawaka, wrote the measure in memory of Sheena Kiska, who was killed during a break-in at her Bristol apartment in 2008. It would allow renters who are victims of burglary or other property crimes to break residential leases without penalty.
The House of Representatives passed two versions of Sheena's law earlier this month, but the state Senate stifled both over concerns the language was too broad and would make it too easy for people to terminate their leases.
"The Senate always puts profits before people," Fry said. "I don't understand how people can't be moved by such a tragedy."
Fry's original version of Sheena's law, House Bill 1073, would have required renters to obtain a police report to prove the crime occurred before they could break a lease.
The House amended the bill to require tenants to get the court's permission to end a lease, and then the Senate Committee on Corrections, Criminal and Civil Matters never scheduled it for a hearing.
Fry added Sheena's law to House Bill 1240, which he wrote about various insurance matters, but the Senate Committee on Insurance and Financial Institutions stripped that language from the bill Thursday.
Sen. Allen Paul, a Richmond Republican and chairman of the committee, said Sheena's law should be addressed in its own bill, not tacked on to another bill about unrelated issues.
"It's an important bill, and it should be handled on its own," Paul said.
Another committee member, Sen. Joe Zakas, R-Granger, said the legislation would be a good memorial to Kiska, but it needs to be done properly.
"If a proposal is too broad, it could have unintended consequences, hurt tenants with higher rent and hurt the good landlords," Zakas said.
He said the House amendment to Fry's original bill would have established a court process, similar to that for victims of domestic violence, to verify a crime occurred at a rental property.
But Fry said most people stuck in unsafe apartments or rental homes do not have the money to go to court.
Kiska wanted to move out of her River Shores apartment after it was burglarized in February 2008, but she did not have the $2,500 she needed to terminate her lease.
The 23-year-old Penn High School alumnus was killed during another break-in a month later.
Her mother, Deborah Kiska, testified in front of a House committee in January and spoke again to the Senate committee Thursday.
"I'm asking for this bill to protect people," she said. "There needs to be something to protect people from abusive landlords."
Fry said he is frustrated, but he will continue "slugging away" at passing Sheena's law before the General Assembly's short session wraps up in March.
He said he plans to amend Senate Bill 357, an insurance bill written by Sen. Paul, to include Sheena's law. The bill is scheduled for a hearing Monday in the House Committee on Insurance, which Fry chairs.
Fry also said he will kill HB 1240, which still includes several provisions beneficial to the insurance industry, if the Senate doesn't restore Sheena's law and a measure to provide Braille prescription labels for the visually impaired.
Staff writer Kevin Allen: firstname.lastname@example.org (574) 235-6244