Under current Mississippi law, if someone is mugged in a poorly lit parking lot the victim can sue the property owner for damages. House Bill 337, and its senate counterpart, SB 2901, aim to define the amount of responsibility a property owner should bear.
"There are situations where business owners are being held liable for criminal incidents that happen on their property," Greg Snowden, the speaker pro tem for the Mississippi House of Representatives, said. "So it's to give the property owners some protection from criminal acts on their property."
Snowden acknowledged the delicate balance necessary in crafting a bill that encourages property owners to maintain safe properties while also protecting them from criminal acts.
"It's come under some criticism because you do want owners incentivized to undertake safety measures for their customers, or whatever," Snowden said. "So we're looking for a balance and making it work. It's still in discussion in the House."
The Senate bill advanced on Thursday but is still open for debate on the Senate floor.
Snowden said some business owners will keep their buildings and parking lots well lit or hire security guards to deter criminals.
"You want them to be incentivized to do that but then again you don't want them held responsible for something that's not really their fault," Snowden said.
Snowden said he worried that putting too much of the onus on property owners might discourage businesses from locating to Mississippi.
"We want to give incentives to developers and to new businesses to come to Mississippi. If we make the legal climate too difficult, it's hard for them to do that," Snowden said. "But, by the same token, if there's a dangerous neighborhood or a dangerous part of the neighborhood the landowner now (under current law) has some responsibility... one of the criticisms of House Bill 337 has been that it really tightens up what has to be considered as unsafe."
Two controversial bills failed to make it out of committee, dying before they could be debated on the floor, including the state flag and medical marijuana. The Mississippi state flag is the only flag in the country to feature a confederate emblem and has long sparked debate.
"There's a lot of discussion but no consensus (on the flag)," Snowden said, noting bills introduced on both sides of the issue. "I think at some point we will see medical marijuana further used in Mississippi and allowed more so than it is now. There are still, I understand, some issues with it and I don't doubt we will have in the future. But this is not the year, apparently, the legislature has chosen to do something."