House passes bill to enhance penalties for cross-county crimes
TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 3/09/22-Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, urges the House to pass his immigration enforcement bill, Wednesday at the Capitol in Tallahassee. COLIN HACKLEY PHOTO

The heightened punishments will be an 'additional tool' to crack down on traveling criminals, the bill's sponsor says.

Legislation to steepen penalties for grand theft and more than a dozen “forcible felonies” committed across county lines has cleared its final House hurdle and is now en route to the Senate.

Representatives approved the bill (HB 531) on a 98-15 vote, with all “no” votes coming from Democrats.

If passed, the bill will update a statute lawmakers established in 2014 to crack down on inter-county burglars. Among other things, it would enhance punishments for grand theft — stealing property worth $750 or more — and crimes like murder, manslaughter, rape, home-invasion robbery, aggravated assault, battery, kidnapping and stalking.

In each such case, the penalty would be the next higher degree. A third-degree felony would become a second-degree felony, for instance, along with all the additional punishments that harsher charge confers.

Stuart Republican Rep. John Snyder, the bill’s sponsor, cited reports in recent years of retail theft rings in which criminals stole and fled from county to county to evade capture.

He indicated that he will likely bring more legislation to address the matter, but said he was glad to “continue moving the needle” with Thursday’s vote.

“While this bill will not erase or eliminate traveling criminals, what this does is give law enforcement and our state prosecutors an additional tool … to carry out the most important charge, and that is to maintain public safety,” he said.

One of several “yes” votes from Democratic lawmakers came from Miami Rep. Ashley Gantt, who last week proffered an amendment Snyder accepted to exempt first-time offenders and people with one nonviolent misdemeanor on their record from heightened sentences. The exemption would not apply if the person is charged with conspiracy.

Proponents of the measure, including Republican Reps. Berny Jacques of Seminole and Mike Beltran of Riverview, argue the penalty hikes will deter criminals and tamp down on illicit, county-spanning operations.

During a discussion in committee over the measure last month, Beltran noted that HB 531 is just a state-size model of federal policy.

“You look at drug prosecution, gun prosecutions, prosecutions involving (trafficking) 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, “he said. “There are massive penalties that some people invoke all the time based on moving across what someone would call an imaginary line.”

Critics like Democratic Reps. Mike Gottlieb and Susan Valdés of Tampa held that the bill’s provisions are unjustly punitive and will stuff Florida’s already overfilled prisons.

It could also make convictions more difficult, said Gottlieb, a criminal defense lawyer in private life.

“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.”

Stuart Republican Sen. Gayle Harrell is sponsoring a similar Senate bill (SB 538), which awaits a hearing before the second of three committees to which it was referred in December.

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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