Party-line vote sends steeper penalties for cross-county crimes to House floor
John Snyder is posting solid numbers for his re-election effort.

Under the bill, thieves crossing county lines to steal property worth $750 or more could face up to 15 years behind bars.

A bill that would steepen penalties for grand theft and more than a dozen “forcible felonies” committed across county lines is heading to a full House vote after clearing its last committee hurdle along party lines.

Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee pushed through the measure (HB 531), which proponents hailed as a tough-on-crime proposal that will crack down on wrongdoers who prey on distant victims.

The bill, sponsored by Stuart Republican Rep. John Snyder, advanced on a 14-6 vote. All “no” votes came from Democratic members of the panel.

Under current statutes, burglary is the only felony for which heightened penalties can apply when a criminal crosses county lines. HB 531 would also enhance punishments for grand theft — stealing property valued at $750 or more — and violent crimes like murder, manslaughter, sexual battery, home-invasion robbery, and aggravated assault and battery, among others.

During a brief discussion Wednesday of the measure, which will next go to the House floor, opponents argued the punishments contemplated are too extreme and will further burden Florida’s crowded and understaffed prison system.

Jonathan Webber, Florida policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, decried the bill as “overbroad” and likely to cause “unintended consequences.”

A person living in South Broward who steals a $100 bike off a porch five minutes away in North Miami-Dade already faces a third-degree felony carrying a maximum prison sentence of five years due to enhanced penalties already enacted by the Legislature, he said.

“Under the provisions of this bill, that offense would be escalated to a second-degree felony with a 15-year maximum sentence simply because the neighborhood next door happens to be in a different county,” he continued. “Fifteen years and a second-degree felony for stealing a bike off a porch seems excessive, intent or no intent.”

Kara Gross of ACLU Florida agreed. So did Democratic Reps. Kristen Arrington, LaVon Bracy Davis, Kevin Chambliss, Mike Gottlieb, Diane Hart and Yvonne Hinson, all of whom voted against the bill.

Gottlieb, a criminal defense lawyer, warned of a multiplier effect HB 531 could have when combined with recently hiked sentencing guidelines for catalytic converter thieves and boosted punishments for so-called “porch pirates” in a proposal advancing this Session.

He also noted that under the bill, nonviolent thieves arrested for cross-county crimes would not be eligible for bail release until after they appear before a Judge. That restriction today applies primarily to violent offenders.

“That’s very problematic in the criminal justice system,” he said. “It’s something we need to take a closer look at.”

Hart said stealing a bike, regardless of which county it was in and where the thief came from, should never result in a five to 10-year prison sentence.

“We’re overcrowded in Florida. We don’t have enough officers. We don’t have enough beds. They’re closing dormitories. I don’t know where you think we’re supposed to put these people,” she said. “We’ve got to figure out how … to deter crime some other way, because this obviously does not get it, and you all see that it’s not working.”

Conservative lobbyist Barney Bishop and Matt Dunagan of the Florida Sheriffs Association signaled support for the bill, while Republican Seminole Rep. Berny Jacques called it “great.”

“This measure will go a long way toward solidifying Florida as a law-and-order state, making it very clear that we do not tolerate these types of acts of people coming into our communities from other counties to do these terrible things,” he said, adding that any additional cost to cage the unlawful actors “will be money well spent, because they deserve to be in prison.”

An identical analogue to the bill (SB 538) by Stuart Republican Sen. Gayle Harrell awaits a hearing before the second of three committees to which Senate President Kathleen Passidomo referred it.

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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