Legislation seeking to help police officers better identify perpetrators of unwanted sexual encounters is on to its final committee, after being approved in a unanimous vote Tuesday by the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
The bill (HB 379), filed by Pinellas County Republican Rep. Linda Chaney, would specify what constitutes a crime of lewd or lascivious molestation upon a person older than 16.
What does that mean? Under current law, a person who commits an act of unwanted sexual touching on an individual over 16 would be charged with simple battery. This legislation would differentiate sexual crimes from simple battery. Chaney previously told Florida Politics that police officers have found that sexual offenders can often escalate, unlike other crimes defined under simple battery.
“If it’s unwanted sexual touching, that’s very different than simple battery, where somebody, for instance, may throw a glass of water in your face,” Chaney said. “They feel there’s value in identifying somebody who’s doing unwanted sexual touching versus somebody who’s doing simple battery. There’s value in knowing the difference.”
The legislation defines “lewd and lascivious molestation” as a person intentionally touching another against his or her will in an inappropriate manner on the breasts, genital area or butt, or if an individual forces another person to touch them in such a manner. The bill dictates the crime as a first-degree misdemeanor, and a subsequent violation as a third-degree felony.
It would also address such crimes against minors as provided by the bill’s parameters. The bill provides that a person 24 years old or older who intentionally touches a 16 or 17 year old person in a lewd or lascivious manner, or forces the minor to inappropriately touch them, the perpetrator commits lewd or lascivious touching (LLT) of minors. That’s a third-degree felony, ranked as a level 4 offense on the OSRC. A person convicted of LLT of minors must register as a sexual offender.
The Florida Smart Justice Alliance and the Florida Sheriff’s Association waived in support of the bill.
The legislation has picked up bipartisan support, with Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book signing on as a co-sponsor to the Senate bill. But Rep. Mike Gottlieb, the Democratic Ranking Member, expressed concern Tuesday that the bill doesn’t go far enough.
“There are many survivors of these kinds of attacks — most recently in Miami-Dade County. There’s been massage therapists that are touching women during massages, touching their genitals, and they’re being prosecuted for a misdemeanor. And really what this bill does is just creates another misdemeanor vehicle for a prosecutor to handle,” Gottlieb said, ultimately voting up on the bill. “I think every day of the week, it should be a third-degree felony. I think we’re moving in that direction.”
Chaney explained the reasoning behind the misdemeanor charge, but said she would like to work with Gottlieb on addressing those concerns.
“The reason that the bill is in its current position, being a misdemeanor, is there was some concern that in a bar, a woman walks by somebody slaps her on the butt, and that’s, you know, higher offense, so that’s how it’s landed where it is,” Chaney said. “Yet, Rep. Gottlieb brings up some valid points and I look forward to working with him and others moving forward.”
Alachua County Republican Sen. Keith Perry is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill (SB 444), which has cleared the chamber.