Legislation to create a statewide civil citation program for juveniles statewide advanced in a Florida Senate Committee Wednesday.
But members of the police and sheriffs association continue to resist the bill as currently drawn.
Miami Republican Senator Anitere Flores’ bill (SB 196) would mandate law enforcement officers to offer a civil citation for youths admitting to one of 11 separate misdemeanors: possession of alcohol beverages; battery; criminal mischief; trespassing; theft; retail and farm theft; riots; disorderly conduct; possession of cannabis or controlled substances; possession, manufacture, delivery, transportation, advertisement or retail sale of drug paraphernalia and resisting an officer without violence.
Flores amended her legislation to require that at least one diversion program must be countywide, but counties could still work together on other programs, as some smaller counties had raised objections. She also said that law enforcement officers would have discretion on whether to give the youth a citation for an offense if they have a previous felony already pending on their record.
The issue of mandating that law officers will otherwise not have discretion as to make an arrest or a civil citation continues to be an issue with law enforcement.
“We don’t want to criminalize youth,” insisted Matt Dunagan, the Florida Sheriffs Association’s assistance executive director of operations in testifying before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. But he insisted that officers need the ability to have flexibility on what to charge a youth with, though the intent is that if they are arrested they are not saddled with that blot on their record.
“We believe the best way to move forward on that is to make sure that those records can be expunged and that when they go and apply for a job, for first-time misdemeanors, that they do not have to check that box if they’ve ever been arrested,” Dunagan said.
Shane Bennett with the Florida Police Chiefs Association concurred with his law enforcement colleague, saying specifically his group had an issue with the classification of battery as being listed in various misdemeanors specified for a civil citation in the bill.
But some members of the committee weren’t sympathetic.
“If law enforcement in this state had been a little bit better in adopting these programs and utilizing the way that they should be used, then perhaps we wouldn’t be in the situation of having to say we’re going to make you do it,” said Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens.
In her summary before the committee, Flores said that misdemeanor battery is unwanted touching — not punching somebody in the face, which would be a felony. She did say she was open to creating a new definition of a misdemeanor battery to placate law enforcement.
Flores added that the reason for a statewide bill is that while some counties are more liberal about offering civil citations to wayward youth, others aren’t, and it’s just a draw of luck of your location that could affect a young person’s life.
To use an example, Flores praised the Pinellas County Sheriffs Dept., which has a 94 percent of eligible youths for civil citations receive it. However, the eligibility rate is much lower across the Howard Frankland Bridge, she notes.
“You’re in Hillsborough County, and if you’re a child in one of these situations, your chances just dropped to a third,” she said. “There’s a two-thirds chance that you’re at a wrong place at the wrong time.”
There are two bills closely tracking Flores’ legislation in the House, including legislation sponsored by Seminole Republican Larry Ahern.
Senate President Joe Negron is a big supporter of criminal justice reform. He issued a statement after the vote, saying,
“In too many cases, we have become a society where law enforcement officers are brought in to referee the day-to-day challenges of raising children. This legislation strikes an appropriate balance between public safety and decriminalizing the mistakes of adolescents.”