Bill hiking penalties for cross-county crimes advances to final committee stop
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 2/9/23-Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, talks about his Transportation of Inspected Unauthorized Aliens bill, Thursday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

For the steeper penalties to apply, prosecutors must prove lawbreakers intentionally crossed counties to commit crimes.

Legislation to impose added punishments for grand theft and more than a dozen “forcible felonies” committed across county lines is now one committee stop from the House floor.

Supporters of the bill (HB 531) say the penalty hikes will deter criminals who travel outside their home county to do wrong with the hope of confounding police and avoiding apprehension.

Opponents argue it’s unjustly punitive and will stuff Florida’s already overcrowded prisons.

Today, burglary is the only felony for which heightened penalties can apply when a criminal travels across county lines. HB 531, if passed, would also enhance punishments for grand theft — stealing property valued at $750 or more — and “forcible” crimes like murder, manslaughter, sexual battery, home-invasion robbery, aggravated assault and battery, kidnapping and stalking, among others.

Rep. John Snyder, a Stuart Republican, said the enhancements his bill contemplates won’t apply uniformly. Instead, he said, prosecutors must prove that a person deliberately crossed a county line for nefarious purposes.

“This is not just the criminal who woke up and realized they were in the wrong county that we’re going after,” he said. “The state has to prove you specifically traveled to go commit that crime.”

On Wednesday, members of the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee voted to advance Snyder’s measure. Four of the panel’s five Democrats — LaVon Bracy Davis, Daryl Campbell, Mike Gottlieb and Susan Valdés — voted “no.”

Valdés, the committee’s ranking minority member, noted that Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon recently came to lawmakers complaining of funding issues and limited bed availability in prisons.

Gottlieb, a criminal defense lawyer who spoke against the measure at its first committee stop last month, said it could make prosecuting criminals more difficult because of the need to prove intent.

“The State Attorney (wouldn’t) just have to prove the intent to commit the crime; they also (would) have to prove the intent to cross county lines to commit the crime,” he said. “Depending on how that’s done … you could wind up with a ‘not guilty’ because both intents can’t be proven.”

He recommended and offered help amending the bill so it applies interrogatorily, meaning courts must first find someone guilty of a crime and then separately find them guilty of intentionally crossing county lines for that purpose.

But Gottlieb said that also could bring a host of additional costs.

“What that’s going to do to the judicial system and to appeals and how we as trial lawyers figure that out (is) very problematic from a fiscal standpoint,” he said.

Seminole Republican Rep. Berny Jacques, a lawyer and nonprofit director, lambasted his Democratic colleagues for worrying about incarceration and legal costs.

“All of a sudden we have some new fiscal conservatives,” he said. “I’m sure this House will make sure the beds are available, because that’s where (criminals) deserve to be.”

Lobbyists for the Florida Sheriffs Association and Florida Smart Justice Alliance signaled support for the bill. SPLC Action Fund opposed it, as did Olivia Weinberger of the Sarasota Prisoner Outreach Project.

Weinberger said people have long traveled from poorer to richer neighborhoods to steal, and raising penalties for such activity doesn’t get to the root causes of the problem.

“It’s now just saying some random line is going to increase the sanctions imposed on someone,” she said. “It’s a completely arbitrary distinction because nobody knows where the county lines are.”

That may be true, said Republican Rep. Mike Beltran, who also works as a lawyer.

“But we have to draw lines somewhere,” he said, adding that Snyder’s bill follows the federal government’s lead.

“You look at drug prosecutions, gun prosecutions, prosecutions involving (the moving of) persons — you move those across a state border and you’ve gone from a relatively lenient … state prosecution to a much more severe federal prosecution. There are massive penalties that some people invoke all the time based upon moving across what someone called an imaginary line.”

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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