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Traffic rules, prison reform among new 2021 California laws
California drivers will now be required to slow down or change lanes when approaching stationary emergency vehicles with emergency lights on local roads.

As 2020 came to a close Thursday night and the world welcomed 2021, a slew of new California laws quietly went into effect when the clock struck midnight. 

It may have been hard for some to keep close track of the State legislature this year between wildfires, the election and the coronavirus pandemic, but lawmakers also passed hundreds of bills during that time. From traffic-related changes to new opportunities for inmate firefighters, these are some of California’s new regulations which became law with the new year. 

Several traffic laws pertaining to good Samaritans, cell phone usage and more went into effect on Friday. In regards to emergency vehicle safety, California drivers will now be required to slow down or change lanes when approaching stationary emergency vehicles with emergency lights, like tow trucks or Caltrans vehicles, on local roads — a requirement which was previously limited to drivers on the freeway. This new law is meant to protect law enforcement officials and first responders responding to emergencies.

Though it’s already illegal to leave a child under six unattended in a vehicle in California, a new law now protects people who may try and break into a car to rescue a child in danger from heat, cold, lack of ventilation or other dangerous circumstances. Under the new law, these people would not be subject to civil or criminal liability for property damage or trespassing.

While this next law won’t go into effect until July 1, 2021, those who have been cited for distracted driving may need to take note. Beginning next summer, driving while using a cell phone in a “handheld manner” will result in a point being added to a driver’s record — but only if the violation is the second to occur within 36 months of being convicted of the same offense.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles also announced changes in 2021 that benefit U.S. military veterans. As of Friday, eligible disabled veterans may qualify for special or distinguishing license plates or a disabled person parking placard if they show certification from the California Department of Veterans Affairs or a county veterans services officer. 

Previously, the latter of the two options was not accepted. In addition, the DMV will also waive applicable knowledge and driving skills tests required for a commercial driver’s license if the applicant is a current or former member of the United States Armed Forces licensed to drive large trucks and qualifies for the Troops to Trucks or Military Even Exchange program.

Other new California laws for 2021 came as a result of social protests this year. One new law requires the demilitarization of police uniforms, which states that law enforcement will no longer be able to wear uniforms which have camouflage or otherwise resemble military uniforms. 

California will also establish a new task force this year, which will study the history of slavery in the United States and how that legacy is still impacting slaves’ descendants today. Following witness testimony and research, the task force will recommend how reparations would be paid out in California and who would receive those payments if such a program were implemented.

California residents who have served time in jail will have new opportunities in 2021. One new law allows people who worked on inmate fire crews while incarcerated to petition the court once they’re released to have their records cleared, thus making it easier to get a job after release — including as a professional firefighter. Those convicted of certain offenses like sex crimes and violent felonies are exempt. 

In addition, a new law passed by California voters, Proposition 17, went into effect Friday and restores felons’ right to vote after the completion of their sentence.

There is also new criminal justice reform for youth, such as AB 901, which prevents children acting out in school from being referred to probation programs or becoming a ward of the court. They will be referred to community support services instead. Beginning in July, the state will start phasing out juvenile prisons, and another law also simplifies the process for a minor in police custody to receive legal counsel before being questioned. 

Finally, one bill that was intended to go into effect this year will have to wait just a bit longer. A flavored tobacco ban which would ban the sale of all flavored tobacco products in California was passed earlier this year, with lawmakers stating the intention of the new law is to make such products less appealing to children. Just before the end of 2020, however, California officials agreed to delay the ban after opponents — led by tobacco companies — filed enough signatures to put the law to a statewide vote.