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Florida cops could soon have more power to investigate social media threats

As the Florida Legislature on Tuesday turned its focus to proposals crafted in the wake of the state’s deadliest school mass shooting in Parkland, a measure that would give law enforcement officers more power to investigate deadly threats made on social media cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube, who on Monday announced he will be running for Congress, said his bill would make it a third-degree felony for a person to make a threat to kill or do great bodily injury to another person on any social media platform. This would include school shooting threats, but the threat would have to be specific, Steube said.

Amy Mercer, the head of the Florida Police Chiefs Association, which represents police chiefs in airports, university campuses and police departments, said the bill is a top priority for the organization. She said the legislation would help law enforcement keep up with the fast-paced growth in technology.

“It would give law enforcement the chance to assess the situation,” Mercer said. “It may be a situation when law enforcement can go assist and give an individual help and prevent a tragedy like the one we saw in Parkland.”

In order for someone who threatens to kill or injure someone to be criminally investigated, the threat needs to be directly sent in a “letter, inscribed communication, or electronic communication,” whether signed or anonymous, to the person who is being targeted. Steube wants to broaden the scope to include social media threats and “great bodily injury.”

“The change to include social media threats to kill or do great bodily injury is to ensure we are only picking up those serious threats,” Mercer said.

On Tuesday, the bill was amended to clear internet and service providers from any liability if a threat is made and it results in tragedy.

The Senate measure (SB 310) now heads to its last committee stop in Senate Rules and an identical House companion bill is ready for the floor in the lower chamber.

If the Legislature passes the proposal, changes would take effect Oct. 1 and could result in the state prison population increasing, according to staff analysis.

Are risk assessment tools — justice by algorithm — best for criminal justice reform?

With increasingly crowded courts and jails, few will disagree that Florida’s justice system needs improvement.

Nevertheless, are statistics — and removing the human element — really the best path to reform?

Among the sweeping measures moving through the Florida Legislature is a proposal for a “pretrial risk assessment” tool, which is designed to give an objective, third-party analysis of whether a person under arrest is likely to appear in court and does not pose a risk of rearrest if released before trial.

Risk assessment typically involves a questionnaire (or some other form) to categorize defendants as either low, medium or elevated risk for pretrial failure.

The underlying idea is that most individuals under arrest will fall in the lower and medium risk categories. Risk assessment weeds out those “low risk” offenders to save the state billions in taxpayer money.

But release decisions by an algorithm are far from foolproof.

Such was the case of Peter Yeager, a 59-year-old New Jersey resident arrested Feb. 21 for the possession of images of children engaged in sexual acts.

One day later, Yeager was free after the state’s “Pretrial Risk Assessment” — developed by the foundation of hedge fund manager John Arnold — found he was not a danger to the community or a flight risk. He was not subject to any accountable release — just a “promise” to appear.

Yeager was just one of the thousands of pretrial releases under the NJ Bail Reform Act, enacted in January, which largely eliminated bail for minor crimes. The goal is to significantly reduce the state’s jail population — the same aim as Florida’s current push for justice reform.

But for many in criminal justice, including the bail bond industry, allowing someone like Yeager to go free raises considerable doubts about the accuracy of risk assessment tools.

What if a person under arrest is lying, refuses to answer or neglects to disclose factors like drug use? Will mental health be considered? What about defendants’ rights? Will lawyers be present? How does it protect the community when people under arrest — a person accused possessing child pornography — are set free?

Another factor in risk assessment, discussed in depth in a 2016 CityLab profile, is the possibility of reinforcing existing racial bias.

All considered, if the human element (such as bail bonds) is removed from these decisions, there is a risk of the system failing those people the criminal justice system is supposed to protect — the people of Florida.

Workers’ comp bill aiding injured immigrant workers likely dead, sponsor says

A bill intended to stop companies from dodging worker’s compensation benefit payouts to undocumented workers who are injured on the job is likely dead, state Sen. Gary Farmer, the bill sponsor, said Tuesday.

“I hate to wave the white flag, but it looks like I will,” the Fort Lauderdale Democrat said.

The effort was born in the wake of two news investigations last year that showed how a 2003 change to workers’ comp law in the state enabled some companies to deny benefits to undocumented workers after they were hired and injured at work. The injured workers would be reported to state law enforcement for using fake IDs or Social Security numbers.

Under current state law, workers who are injured on the job and use a fake ID face felony workers’ comp fraud charges. Farmer’s bill (SB 1568) would have changed that. But on Tuesday,  he said the effort may have to wait until next year.

State workers’ comp law has also led the state’s Division of Investigative and Forensic Services to refer five cases to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for further investigation after it received a complaint. Once referred to ICE, the individuals were deported. The division does not have the authority to serve in any immigration-related capacity, but it handles a variety of workers comp-related cases that have involved undocumented immigrants because of the way the law is written.

The proposal does not have a companion bill in the House, and Farmer said he is “not a fan” of the chamber’s workers’ comp bill to which he could potentially add his language.

Once stalled in the Senate, Farmer’s bill cleared its first committee stop earlier this month and was placed for first reading on the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, chaired by Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat.

Montford told both Florida Politics and Farmer that his committee is likely done meeting for the 2018 Legislative Session, which has a little over a week more to go.

Senate pushes gun, school safety proposals without assault weapon ban

Following a chaotic and emotional two-hour debate at the Senate Rules Committee on Monday, dozens of gun control advocates left the meeting angry and disappointed when senators voted down a ban on assault weapons.

“Vote them out! Vote them out!” protesters chanted after Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto announced the failure of on an amendment filed by Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez that would have barred the sale and transfer of all assault weapons in the state.

Sen. Anitere Flores was the only Republican who voted with Democrats in support of the ban. Republicans on the panel did not debate their reasons for voting against the ban of weapons such as the AR-15 rifle, which 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used to gun down 16 of his classmates and two of his teachers at a Parkland high school.

NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and Eric Friday, the president of Florida Carry, did go before the panel to express their opposition though, arguing that it would punish “law-abiding citizens” for the actions of “one criminal.”

“They don’t like how a criminal used the weapon,” Friday said in reference to the protesters, “but that’s not how they are widely used.”

“It is time for the Legislature to realize this is an attempt to punish law-abiding citizens for the actions of one citizen,” he said.

The assault weapon ban amendment was one of several amendments filed by Democrats that were batted out of a Senate package that would have a wide range of impact on school safety, gun regulations and mental health services in the state.

The Senate package is similar to the one proposed in the House, and would allow for local government to choose whether to arm their teachers with weapons and train them to respond in case of an active shooting on campus.

The package passed the Senate Rules Committee on a 9-4 vote, with Democratic Sens. Lauren Book and Bill Montford voting with Republicans.

Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky told senators that it was not a “perfect bill,” but that at least it was action by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, which has for years been against passing gun control measures. This package includes provisions to raise the legal age to purchase an assault weapon to 21 years old and a three-day waiting period for gun purchases.

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon said he could not vote for the package because the “marshal program” that would give guns to trained teachers was a “step too far.”

“I cannot support a bill that puts guns in the hands of the people that are supposed to be educating,” Braynon said.

The package now heads to the Appropriations Committee for its final stop before it can hit the Senate floor.

Senate President-designate Bill Galvano said an appropriations amendment will be ready Tuesday that will explain how the proposal, with a $400 million price tag, will be paid.

Protest erupts in Senate Rules Committee as gun proposals are considered

A sit-in protest over gun-control legislation erupted inside and outside the Senate Rules Committee on Monday as senators considered three contentious proposals rolled out in the wake of the deadly Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Clad in bright orange shirts, gun control advocates wielded signs slamming the National Rifle Association. They yelled, “this is what democracy looks like” as the Rules Committee convened.

Chaos and emotion soon ensued in the jam-packed committee room and nearby hallways.

Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto struggled to keep protesters in order as they booed NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer and Florida Carry President Eric Friday when each testified against amendments filed by Democrats to ban assault weapons in Florida.

“They don’t like how a criminal used the weapon,” Friday said, “but that’s not how they are widely used. It is time for the Legislature to realize this is an attempt to punish law-abiding citizens for the actions of one citizen.”

The amendments were filed on a package that merged three proposals that would arm teachers with weapons and train them to react in active shooter situations, raise the legal age to buy all firearms to 21 and increase funding for mental health in schools.

With two weeks left in the 2018 Legislative Session, this package hijacked the three-hour meeting. There were 25 other bills on the agenda, mostly on their final committee stop, but Benacquisto said the committee would likely not get to hear them as the focus would be on the recently filed proposals.

Bail bond industry, Jeff Brandes spar over sweeping justice reform bill

The Florida Legislature is considering sweeping criminal justice reform measures that have come under fire by the bail bond industry, but the sponsor of one of the bills said Sunday that he is “not in the business of making bail bondsmen money.”

“They are in the business of writing bonds, and their business will go down if more people get diverted to civil citations,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican who is sponsoring SB 1392 and SB 1218, the duo of bills at the heart of the fight.

One of the bills (SB 1218) would require the state to invest in a computer program that uses algorithms to determine the risk of each offender for flight risk and their overall danger level. The bail bonds industry opposes it, arguing it is safer to rely on their expertise than on a computer.

The other bill (SB 1392) would require each judicial district in the state to create diversion programs for adults and juveniles, with the intent of giving local law enforcement agencies a tool that can serve between a warning and an arrest for low-level offenders.

But some in the bail bond industry say there will be no “uniformity” in the state and that some programs pushed by jurisdictions, like the one in Pinellas County, are “flawed.”

“There is no uniformity in the program,” said Matthew Jones, the president of A Way Out Bail Bonds II Inc. “You could possible end up with 67 different qualification programs around the state.”

Jones said he is also concerned about public safety and slammed the program in Pinellas County for allowing those arrested for certain battery misdemeanor charges to participate.

According to data provided by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the top five offenses for those who participated in its program included, possession of marijuana, retail theft, battery, petit theft and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

If the legislation passes, each judicial district would have the flexibility to implement its own rules and criteria for qualifying offenders, as well as their own fees. Brandes’ bill does not set a blanket fee for the program.

In Florida’ 18th Judicial Court, for example, participants are normally supervised between six months to a year and are required to pay between $370 and $720, plus a $50 prosecution fee.

“Pretrial diversion is a voluntary program,” the website announced in all caps, “therefore, fees are not eligible for reduction or waiver.”

Programs that are currently in place would go not away under the proposal.

To complete a program, participants may have to go through drug treatment, community service, counseling or a combination of all those, at their expense. Those who do not fulfill the program’s requirements could be rearrested.

Advocates say the program has proven to reduce recidivism and in the long run allows adults and juveniles to tumble down employment barriers that would otherwise be there as a result of having a criminal record.

The implementation of these programs statewide would also likely save local governments money since booking and arrest-processing costs are expected to be down, Senate staff wrote in an analysis of the bill. As a result, this could cost the bail bond industry money.

Brandes’ proposal will go before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. It is its last committee stop before it can hit the Senate floor.

The House is also considering a similar diversion program bill, HB 1197 by Pinellas County Republican Rep. Larry Ahern, that is now in its last committee stop.

Fla. Democrats hammer Adam Putnam, Ron DeSantis over gun proposal silence

A day after Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature unveiled their plans to back unprecedented new restrictions on guns in the state, the Florida Democratic Party started taking note of the Republican gubernatorial candidates who have stayed silent on the issue.

Citing their “significant backing from the gun lobby,” the state party is pointing its finger at two candidates: Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who has dubbed himself an “NRA sellout,” and Congressman Ron DeSantis.

Over the span of their political careers, both have received more than $10,000 in NRA donations, according to a POLITICO report. And before the deadliest school shooting in the state took place last week, they touted that backing.

“The Tampa Bay Times recently called me a sellout to the NRA,” Putnam once said. “As someone who believed the Second Amendment is an inalienable right, I’ll wear that comment like a badge of honor. I’m a proud NRA Sellout.”

Now, facing massive protests, the candidates are keeping quiet on whether they support the plan rolled out by Gov. Scott and the Florida House and Senate, which includes raising the age limit to buy guns to 21 and banning bump stocks. Their proposals also include millions of dollars in funding to harden schools and mental health services.

“The two gov candidates’ silence seems to reflect a larger failure by the GOP to answer the demands of the #NeverAgain movement,” FDP spokesman Kevin Donohoe said in an email.

Donohoe then linked to a screenshot of an email sent by Florida GOP leadership telling members to not answer comments on the proposals.

“We understand the media is reaching out for comments on the plan; however, we ask you do not answer any questions because the RPOF does not take positions on legislation until all three branches of government agree,” Chairman Blaise Ingoglia wrote to members.

Senate panel pushes criminal justice overhaul bill

A sweeping criminal justice bill that would upend how the state collects data on offenders in an attempt to better determine who is incarcerated and for how long is moving in the Senate.

The measure would require the Department of Corrections to use risk-assessment instruments that can identify the appropriate intervention and program for an offenders in an effort to reduce recidivism. Sen. Jeff Brandes said his bill (SB 1218) could be used as the foundation for “meaningful” criminal justice reform in the future.

Lobbyist Barney Bishop told the panel he is in favor of bolstering data collection on the criminal justice field, but said it will cost the state a “good chunk.” According to staff analysis, that “chunk” would amount to nearly $1.1 million — nearly $764,000 of which would go to technology-related costs for the assessment system.

Groups that included the Florida Association of Counties, the James Madison Institute, Americans for Prosperity and Right on Crime told the panel they were in support of the bill and Agnes Furey, a Tallahassee restorative justice advocate.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal Justice Subcommittee cleared the measure unanimously before adjourning for the 2018 legislative session.

“This remains a work in progress and we will continue to work on it,” Brandes said. “It’s amazing to see the shift we are seeing in the Senate and the Legislature as a whole.”

In Florida, there are about 96,000 inmates incarcerated in a system that costs taxpayers an estimated $2.4 billion every year. Brandes has taken the lead in championing reforms this year that have not gained much traction in the Legislature over the years — and some that the House may find a bit hard to swallow, like changing the state’s mandatory minimum sentences.

But both chambers are on the same page when it comes to data collection. The Florida House on Wednesday passed HB 7071, which leadership called a “game changing criminal justice data transparency” bill.

Republican state Rep. Chris Sprowls said the measure will make the state a “model for effective, data-driven criminal justice” and “create the gold standard for the rest of the country.”

The measure would require the DOC to report and publish, on a quarterly basis, inmate admission by offense type and recidivism rates with a unique identifier for each person who is subject of a criminal case. Information on those who make the arrests or prosecute the cases would not be tracked under the bill.

“As a former prosecutor, I know that our justice system must be better informed and that there are changes needed to create a more fair, accountable and transparent system,” Sprowls said.

Osceola County finds sweet spot for medical marijuana dispensaries

It may have taken 16 months, an attempt by the Florida Legislature to tie local authorities’ hands, and threats of a lawsuit, but the Osceola County Commission has found what many may consider the sweet spot in approving retail sales of medical marijuana.

As a result, one medical marijuana company gets exclusive rights to open stores in Osceola County, but just three of them.

On Monday the Osceola County Commission approved two measures that will allow three medical marijuana dispensaries in the county, one on U.S. 192 between Kissimmee and Celebration; one on U.S. 192 between Kissimmee and St. Cloud; and one on South John Young Parkway between Kissimmee and Poinciana; and then to ban any additional cannabis dispensaries in the county.

The medical marijuana business was awarded to San Felasco Nursery of Gainesville, which is also known as Grandiflora, and which is operating its medical marijuana retail business under the name The Green Solution, in association with a Colorado-based medical marijuana company of that name.

“I’m really happy to see Osceola County residents are going to have access to the medicine that a lot of them need, without having to go way out of their way to get it,” said Osceola County Commissioner Viviana Janer, who supported The Green Solution stores getting their certificates, and who nonetheless also voted for the countywide ban.

Elsewhere, throughout Florida, most cities and counties have struggled with their options on medical marijuana.

That’s because last summer the Florida Legislature restricted local options to essentially allowing as many medical marijuana stores as the market would bear, to go in anywhere that a pharmacy could be located; or to ban them entirely. Many local officials who knew they have Walgreens and CVSs around the corner from schools, churches, and prize tourist attractions, shuddered at the “anywhere” option. So many cities and counties voted to ban them, even though many of the same officials involved said they wouldn’t mind a small number of stores in carefully-chosen locations.

In Osceola County’s case, their first assessment was to provide for three or four stores countywide. They’re getting three.

“Things just seemed to work out,” said Osceola County spokesman Mark Pino.

Here’s how they worked out: In October 2016 the county commission approved a regulatory ordinance detailing how “medical marijuana treatment centers” would be approved for operation certificates. San Felasco applied and got preliminary county approval for three locations. Meanwhile, Florida voters approved Amendment 2 in November 2016, greatly expanding the state’s medical marijuana industry. So before The Green Solution certificates could be issued, Osceola County backtracked, and approved a temporary moratorium, buying time to see what the Florida Legislature would do about the new, expanded law. The legislature’s response was to pass the enabling legislation that included the all-or-nothing choice for counties and cities. The Green Solution threatened to sue Osceola County to get its already-approved certificates. Osceola settled.

On Monday the board of county commissioners approved the settlement with The Green Solution, and then approved a county-wide ban henceforth, under the state-mandated all-or-nothing provision.

“This is an equitable solution to this matter and gives us, as the local jurisdiction, the power to prevent an out-of-control proliferation of these facilities,” Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins, Jr. stated in a news release. “When voters approved Amendment 2, I don’t think they wanted dispensaries on every street corner in the community. This agreement and our ban cements this intent while allowing those who need this service the ability to access it.”

With Parkland students present, Senate postpones gun bill vote

A Senate bill that would allow guns in churches with schools attached was temporarily postponed on Wednesday, but it could still come back later in the legislative session.

As Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivors filled the seats in the Senate gallery, Senate President Joe Negron said the gun bill by Republican Sen. Dennis Baxley would be “temporarily postponed today.” The bill (SB 1048) was ready for a final vote in the chamber.

Whether the bill is considered in the last two weeks of session, Negron said, is up to the Baxley and Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto.

Baxley’s proposal would allow those with concealed carry permits to bring guns into churched if they have the permission from the property owner, unless there are school-sponsored activities going on.

The House is considering a similar bill that does not restrict gun access to the premise during school hours. That bill is ready for a final vote, but has yet to be heard.

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