After sharp debate, the House of Representatives voted Wednesday to give Secret Service agents the same police powers as local Connecticut officers for certain crimes.
The agents would be able to obtain arrest and search warrants in the same way as local police for financial crimes, including identity theft, money laundering, computer crimes, forgery, illegal use of a credit card, larceny, and issuing a bad check, among others.
The bill passed by 90 to 52 as some Democrats joined with most Republicans in opposing the measure. The Democrats who voted against the bill included state Representatives Patricia Dillon of New Haven, Linda Schofield of Simsbury, Peter Tercyak of New Britain, and Terry Backer of Stratford.
Republicans had the fundamental question of why the bill was needed at all. Rep. Sean Williams, a Watertown Republican, wanted to know why the legislature was considering the bill.
“What is the problem that we are fixing here?’’ Williams asked.
Rep. Ed Jutila of Niantic, the measure’s chief proponent, responded that the Secret Service needs “the maximum ability’’ to coordinate their efforts with local law enforcement officials.
“If they happen across something that appears to be a crime under Connecticut law, they can take immediate action – and that’s what this is about,” Jutila said.
The incident that provoked the bill was a violent crime at a Big Y supermarket in New Milford on Memorial Day 2009. An off-duty Secret Service agent fired a warning shot after chasing a 36-year-old man who had cut an employee’s hand with a box cutter, according to police. The arrested man, identified by police as Ian Sprague, was charged with stealing the purse of a customer inside the supermarket. An employee who tried to help the customer was cut during the incident before Sprague fled from the store.
The off-duty Secret Service agent then chased Sprague, caught up to him outside the store, pulled out his gun, and ordered him to drop the weapon, according to police. After the agent fired the warning shot into the ground, Sprague gave up the box-cutter. He was not immediately arrested by the Secret Service agent but was charged by the local police.
Republicans said they were concerned that the state of Connecticut would be liable if any Secret Service agent made a mistake and subsequently made a false arrest.
“We cannot just assume that everything is going to be OK because they are highly skilled and highly trained,” Williams said. “We don’t know the reason why we are doing this bill. We don’t know what problem we are solving. … Let’s face it, folks. People make mistakes in this world.’’
House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk agreed, saying, “I guess I just don’t get it. … I don’t see why it would be necessary.’’
Overall, 10 states currently give “full peace officer powers to federal law enforcement officials,” Jutila said.
The measure now goes to the Senate.