Lawmakers have approved a bill to expand law enforcement’s ability to bolster charges against thieves some call “traveling criminals.”
State law currently allows authorities to enhance burglary charges if the offender crossed county lines to commit the crime. The same law, however, also requires authorities to prove a burglar moved across county lines to thwart law enforcement and counter property recovery efforts.
On Friday, the Senate approved the change 24-13. Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart crossed party lines and voted yes. St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes voted no.
Stuart Republican Sen. Gayle Harrell worked on the original law with help from Martin County Sheriff and former Rep. William Snyder. Now Harrell and Snyder’s son, Stuart Republican Rep. John Snyder, want to remove the requirement that authorities must prove the burglar crossed county lines in order to thwart law enforcement (HB 6037). However, the authorities would still have to prove the burglar intentionally crossed county lines.
Harrell says not just Martin County but South Florida and beyond has been impacted by the “Felony Lane Gang,” and “pillowcase burglars” and “traveling criminals.”
“I think this will give our law enforcement the ability to hopefully deal with these gangs,” Harrell told senators Friday. “This is organized crime that is doing this and coming into our communities.”
Harrell had intended to wait till John Snyder could visit the Senate to pass the bill in honor of the family connection.
“As someone who’s been blessed to be raised in a law enforcement family, I take great pride in giving additional tools to our law enforcement and to our prosecutors to keep our community safe,” John Snyder told members last month before the House vote.
Last month, the House voted 79-36 to pass the bill with support from four Democrats. The near party-line split was a stark change from last year, when the House bill passed John Snyder’s similar bill 100-7.
Some Democratic lawmakers and criminal justice reform activists have spoken out against the measure throughout the committee process. Critics warned the bill would give authorities too much discretion, which they say may amplify biases against communities of color.
Additionally, critics contend the bill would send more people into prison at a time when the state prison system is under duress. The attention of lawmakers, they often argue, is best focused elsewhere.
“I think this type of approach subjects us to the claim that we’re gentrifying our criminal laws, and I just don’t think we should be doing that,” Lighthouse Point Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer said.
If approved, the bill would take effect Oct. 1.