Legislative Session Preview: Bryan Ávila tackles fraudulent notaries, espionage, crowd control
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 11/8/23-Sen. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, talks about Senate Bill 10C his bill on scrutinized companies doing business with Iran, Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. The Senate took up and passed the House version of the bill and it now moves to the governor for approval. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

The legislation aims to protect homeowners, first responders and United States government and commercial interests.

As the 2024 Legislative Session nears, Miami Springs Republican Rep. Bryan Ávila is prioritizing three measures that reflect resident feedback his office received this year.

Each bill centers on a form of security — financial, emergency or international — and all benefit the community, he said.

“And it’s really all about community,” he said. “As always, I’m focusing on my residents, what I hear back from them and what we’re seeing in our community.”

Atop Ávila’s list is SB 356, which would stiffen penalties for notary fraud. It would hike the penalty for notarizing signatures on real estate documents if the signer is absent to a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

The measure, which also outlines strict record-keeping and recording strictures, comes amid a wave of notary-related fraud cases in Florida. WLRN reported this month on a disputed signature that could be key to a case involving Miami City Attorney Victoria Méndez and the alleged defrauding of more than a dozen elderly South Florida homeowners.

Last month, Monroe deputies arrested two people for forging signatures to authorize more than a dozen building permits in the county. The Tampa Bay Times reported in July about similar schemes across the state.

“A lot of residents reached out to our office about this problem,” Ávila said, adding that his office is working with State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia “to really try to tackle this issue.”

Another measure (SB 184) would create additional protections for first responders at crowded crime scenes. It would codify that police and other emergency personnel have a 14-foot “buffer” area onlookers may not enter.

If a person persists in “harassing” or “threatening” first responders after being warned to back away, the bill says, they could be arrested and charged with a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison and $1,000 in fines.

“First responders need to neutralize and stabilize the environment, and if there are multiple victims, they need adequate space to work in,” Ávila said. “This is a bill to not only protect first responders, which is obviously, immensely important, but it’s also to ensure they can deliver assistance to victims.”

SB 184 is identical to legislation he sponsored earlier this year to which Hialeah Republican Rep. Alex Rizo filed a similar companion.

Rizo has carried bills for years to ban people from getting within 30 feet of police after being warned, twice the distance Ávila’s bill contemplates. In 2021, Miami-Dade County Commissioners criticized Rizo’s measure as too restrictive, redundant — Florida law already bans obstructing police officers in the line of duty — and a potential tool police could be used to keep from being filmed.

Perhaps to placate those concerns, Rizo’s bill for the coming Session (HB 75) and its 2023 iteration include language providing that peacefully recording, photographing or witnessing a first responder is a “legitimate purpose that does not, by itself, constitute harassment.”

Ávila did not include that language in his measure, he said, because state law already provides protections for filming and photographing police. He said the legislation wasn’t inspired by a single incident, but rather a growing trend of misconduct.

“We’re having more and more large gatherings, whether at a football game, concert or holiday gathering, where large groups of individuals are concentrated in a specific area and at some point a brawl occurs,” he said.

“The next thing you know, you’re having first responders coming to the scene where the brawl might still be taking place, and they have to stabilize the entire situation. I’ve seen at home several incidents, particularly in Miami Beach, where it’s paramount and incumbent on us to provide that distance so the first responders can work and treat victims.”

There’s also SM 540, which would urge U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to condemn the Chinese Communist Party and their “emerging partnership” with Cuba to expand espionage and military capabilities on the island.

Freshman Miami Republican Rep. Juan Porras filed a similar measure (HM 351) in the House.

As detailed in recent reporting by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and The Guardian, the Chinese have been setting up spy bases in Cuba capable of intercepting nearby U.S. military and commercial signals since before 2019.

“It’s a big threat to have those two entities so close to the U.S. working together,” Ávila said. “It’s a national security threat that the federal government needs to take seriously.”

Ávila hopes to bring back “as much federal funding as possible” for critical needs in Senate District 39, which covers a northwestern section of Miami-Dade covering all or part of Doral, Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Medley, Miami Lakes, Miami Springs, Sweetwater and Virginia Gardens.

“We have a lot of needs in Northwest Miami-Dade, particularly as it relates to infrastructure, flood mitigation, public safety and senior citizen initiatives,” he said. “Those are the things I’m really trying to home in on and obtain as much state funding for as I can.”

The 2024 Legislative Session commences Jan. 9 and runs through March 8.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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