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New Proposal by US Attorney General May Sidestep Florida Civil Forfeiture Laws

July 20th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
There’s concern in Florida tonight after US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he would be expanding circumstances in which law enforcement agencies can use civil forfeiture.
There’s a fear the proposed policy would allow law enforcement agencies to side step state laws restricting the practice.
Under Florida law, for police to seize assets from a person, with some exceptions, must first make an arrest.
The proposed federal policy would allow police to seize assets without any evidence if they are willing to share the goods with the Federal Government.
Criminal defense attorney Richard Greenberg is concerned the new policy would create scenarios where people’s assets could be taken in way not allowed under Florida law.
“An innocent owner can have their property seized and then they have to fight to try and get that property back,” said Greenberg.
State Senator Jeff Brandes sponsored unanimously approved legislation in 2016, which created the restrictions on civil forfeiture in Florida.
“This, I think, highlights property rights exist,” said Sen. Brandes.
Now he fears Session’s proposal would damage the states control over the practice.
The 2016 law that requires an arrest before property can be seized. It also requires local agencies to begin reporting seizures to the state.
The first report is due in October.
Orange County Sheriff and president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association Jerry Demings says the proposed Federal policy change includes a number of restrictions and safe guards, which he believes will prevent miss use of civil forfeitures.
“I don’t see it as opening anything up… to the contrary it really tightens the rules up,” said Demings.
Still, Attorney Richard Greenberg says any expansion to civil forfeiture could open the door to abuse.
“It’s been called policing for profit. Where law enforcement agencies are more concerned about seizing assets to fund their own operations than they are for public safety,” said Greenberg.
Nearly half of the states have passed laws restricting civil forfeiture, Florida’s law is not the most restrictive.
According to the Florida Sheriff’s Association local law enforcement would only be able to side step state law in cases where an agency is working directly with Federal Law Enforcement.

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New Law Allows Victims of Terrorism to Sue for Damages

July 19th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A new Florida law gives victims of terrorism and their families the ability to seek reparations in court.
Legislative support was overwhelming, but the new policy does raise some questions.
Victims of terrorism have always been able to seek damages for injuries they suffered.
Bu the new law that took effect July first, allows victims to specifically sue on the basis of being a victim of terror.
The law creates a civil cause of action for a person injured by an act of terrorism.
Victims are entitled to attorney’s fees and a minimum of $1,000 in damages.
Civil Trial Lawyer Harry Graham says the addition of attorney fees gives the law teeth.
“It’s an incentive for attorneys to take the case to bring justice to their clients and it’s also an incentive for the defendant to settle the case,” said Graham.
The law comes a year after the Pulse Night Club Shooting, which claimed 49 lives.
It’s designed not only as a way to help victims, but also deter terrorism.
Terrorism has a broad definition in the State of Florida, raising the question of what cases the law will apply to.
Mark Schlakman with the Center for the Advancement of Human Rights at Florida State University says anytime a new law related to terrorism goes into effect the question of how to appropriately narrow the definition of terrorism is raised.
“Lone actors, who whether they’re mentally imbalanced or not, acting on their own initiative, how should we characterize that? And what are the implications in terms of law enforcement and prevention of terrorist acts,” said Schlakman.
Attorney Graham expects people to test the waters with this law, but he points out there are penalties included in the law for someone who frivolously sues another for terrorism.
“They have allowed for the defendants to recover attorney’s fees and costs if the case is deemed frivolous,” said Graham.
Although Graham believes the new law wont be used often, he says when it is properly invoked it will have more teeth than previous options available to victims.
Victims have up to 5 years to file suit, but the timeline can be extended by two years if a prosecution is ongoing.

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ACLU Seeks End to Abortion Waiting Period

July 19th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

A 2015 law requiring women to wait 24 hours before having an abortion remains on hold tonight. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, a circuit judge in the state Capitol today gave the state 60 days to prove the state has a compelling interest in delaying abortions.

The 24 hour waiting period was passed and signed into law in 2015. It’s been in court every since. In February the State Supreme Court chastised an appellate court for allowing the law to go into effect. It concluded the mandatory delay law infringes on a woman’s right to privacy. Then it sent the case back to the trial level.

On Wednesday, Julia Kaye of the ACLU asked Judge Terry Lewis to rule the law unconstitutional.

“The only thing this law does is impose a one size fits all mandate that she must delay her procedure by 24 hours, even if she’s ready” the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project lawyer told the court.

But  Denise Harlee, Deputy Solicitor General asked for more time to gather evidence.

“We would like to look at facts from other states that do have a waiting period to show that women are changing their minds” Harlee told the judge.

Judge Terry Lewis made it clear the state has a huge hurdle to prove the law isn’t a burden on women.

“It’s Been going on a long time. I think if I were in your shoes, I’d be ready a long time ago.”

Still, he gave the state 60 days to prove its case.

“On the other hand, I think it’s very important that whatever happens here. there is a complete record” said Lewis.

Richard Johnson, the attorney for Gainesville Woman Care, who challenged the law, thinks the writing is on the wall.

“It does seem like he wants to bullet proof what he’s doing, and make sure that’s it’s just beyond challenge” said Johnson afterward.

Since 2015, the twenty-four hour wait has only been in effect  for about two months.

ACLU’s Julia Kaye it’s impact was still felt.

“And what we saw is that it caused tremendous harm” says Kaye.

Even after a likely October decision, the 24 hour wait is likely to remain in limbo as more appeals grind through the system

Florida’s Constitution has a stronger right to privacy than most states and the US Constitutions. The ACLU argued the wait has had the biggest impact on poor women, forcing them to take extra days off work, find childcare and additional transportation.

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Department of Ag Boasts 82,000 Veterans Receive Concealed Weapons Licenses Through Expedited Process

July 18th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam announced this morning more than 82,000 people have received concealed weapons permits as part of an effort to expedite the application process for active military personnel and veterans since 2015.
The move to speed up the process for those in the armed forces came as a result of the terrorist attacks against military members in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the summer of 2015 which claimed the lives of 5 service members.
Putnam says Florida is safer knowing current and former veterans are given priority in exercising their second amendment rights.
“When I look at the firearms training, the discipline and the character of the 82,000 men and women who have served this country and continue to serve this country, they are a force multiplier for law enforcement,” said Putnam.
Currently there are 1.78 million concealed weapons license holders in the state.

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Opt Out Florida Expects Boost in Support From Florida Supreme Court Ruling

July 18th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A group of parents suing the state after their children were told they would have to repeat the 3rd grade for refusing to take a standardized language arts exam have gotten more bad news from the State Supreme Court.
The court has refused to hear their case, which means if they want to sue, they will have to individually sue their home school districts.
School Districts have the option to keep a portfolio of students work to be used in lieu of standardized tests.
In this case the school districts didn’t take the option and the parents say that caused their kids to not be able to move on to the next grade.
The parents sued independently, but are part of a group called The Opt Out Florida Network.
It’s an organization of parents who feel standardized testing should be removed from state law.
Beth Larsen Overholt, head of the Leon County Chapter has had her children opt out of tests for years.
“I am protesting against the accountability system and the policies of the DOE,” said Overholt.
The Supreme Court refused to take the case after an appeals court ruled against the parents.
The parents had their children open the test booklets but not answer questions.
The standardized language arts test, is required to be taken to enter fourth grade.
When their children were going to be held back for refusing the test they sued.
In the ruling the justices wrote, “The test can only achieve that laudable purpose if the student meaningfully takes part in the test by attempting to answer all of its questions to the best of the student’s ability. Anything less is a disservice to the student.”
Opt Out Florida says the decision isn’t a set back, in fact the organization expects to see a spike in support as a result.
“Or they just see the ‘accounta-baloney’ that’s going on in our schools,” said Overholt.
The Florida School Boards Association says although the portfolio option is still optional, many school districts are beginning to adopt the policy so more students aren’t held back.
“Districts are trying very hard to respect the desire of the parent as well as ensure the student is able to demonstrate mastery of the content,” said Andrea Messina, Executive Director of FSBA.
We reached out to the Department of Education for Comment on this story, failed to receive a response in time.
There is still no word as to what the parents involved in the suit will do next. One parent told us the group is waiting for direction from their attorney.

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First District Court of Appeals Hears Lawsuit Against Florida Department of Education

July 18th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A case against the Florida Department of Education was heard in the First District Court of Appeals this morning.
Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now filed a lawsuit against the DOE for failing to meet it’s constitutional duty, which requires the department to provide “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools” to all of Florida’s 2.8 million students.
The plaintiffs argue disparities in the achievement level of low income students and students with disabilities.
The lawsuit was thrown out by a Circuit Court Judge last year, who said the plaintiff’s failed to prove there was sufficient evidence to suggest the DOE wasn’t upholding it’s constitutional commitment.
Representing both plaintiffs, attorney Jodi Siegel says she want the appeals court to send the case back to a trial court.
“High quality we think is definable and that the Legislature has already taken stabs at defining it and they’re not meeting it. Zero percent of kids with disabilities  in a county not achieving on the standard is not high quality,” said Siegel.
 
The Appeals Court gave no indication when they might issue a ruling, but expectation are the case will eventually be taken up by the Florida Supreme Court.

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Speed Trap Town says label No Longer Warranted

July 18th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

In the entire United States, AAA Motor Club says there are only two cities it calls speed traps, Lawtey and Waldo Florida. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the driver centered organizations now says it is considering changing their designation.

Lawtey and Waldo Florida are both on heavily traveled US 301. Waldo abolished its police force in 2015 after officers admitted ticket quotas were a reality. Lawtey has four full time officers and the chief.

Officer Jay Raulerson works morning in Lawtey.

“36, 37.”

His first stop, a correctional officer doing 37 in a residential neighborhood. The posted speed limit, 20. Raulerson’s message to the driver:  “The Chief’s been getting a lot of complaints of people speeding up and down through here.” The DOC employee got a break. Our crew replaced the printer that Raulerson would have used to issue a ticket.

Shane Bennet was elected Police Chief in Lawtey in 2014, after the previous chief of 52 years retired.

“The city of Lawtey, on a citation that’s a hundred and ninety six dollars, Lawtey only gets about thirty six dollars of that.So it’s not the cash cow that people think it is, and quite certainly its not our goal. Our goal is traffic safety” says the Chief.

Police here average 17 tickets a day.That’s one for every thousand cars that passes down this road.

Bennet has asked AAA motor clubs to reconsider their speed troop designation.

“We don’t want to be a speed trap designation. We don’t think we are a speed trap designation” says Bennet.

 

In a statement, AAA Vice President Kevin Bakewell says Given the abolishment of the Waldo police department and what appears to be more reasonable leadership in Lawtey, we are revisiting their designations.

“We want visitors to come through here, stop at our stores. And know that they are welcome and that they are not targeted” says the Chief.

One question AAA has asked. How many tickets go to locals compared to outsiders…Bennet says the answer is isn’t a winner for the small town. Locals are outnumbers 17 to one on Lawtey roads every day of the year.

Lawtey’s chief believes the city’s future is growing its tax base through tourism and economic development, not making people mad by giving them a ticket. AAA says we will be the first to know if the speed trap designation is removed.

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Senator Bill Nelson Seeks to Tackle Increasing Federal Student Loan Rates

July 17th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Americans have over 1.5 trillion dollars in combined student loan debt, it more than credit car and auto loan debt.
Interest rates on those loans are climbing but US Senator Bill Nelson has filed a bill that would put caps on interest rates.
The average college graduate in Florida leaves college owing nearly 24 thousand dollars.
With interest rates at four and three quarters percent, students fear the amount of time the loans will take to pay back.
“Like for me personally I wanted to do music. So that’s going to be hard to do because it’s obviously not easy to have a successful music career,” said FSU student Raven Henry.
Interest rates on federal student loans are fixed, so once accepted they’re locked into that rate even if the rate drops in the future.
Between 2006 and 2013 the rate was as high as 6.8%.
“They’re putting off decisions about getting married, having a family, buying a home. Some of them don’t qualify for a mortgage because they’ve got so much student debt,” said Senator Nelson.
Senator Nelson has filed a bill in the US Senate that would cap the federal student loan interest rate for undergraduate students at 4%.
Under Current law, rates could rise up to 10% for undergraduates.
Senator Bill Nelson’s proposal would also allow those with current interest higher than 4% to refinance their debt at a lower rate.
The United Faculty of Florida says the legislation is a good first step.
UFF hopes to see similar efforts by the State Legislature to help make college more affordable for students.
“What’s happening is the higher cost of higher education is really restricting people of low income more than any other segment,” said UFF Executive Director, Marshall Ogletree.
Under the federal legislation, graduate student loan interest would be capped at 5 percent.
Senator Nelsons bill does not currently have a sponsor in the US House of Representatives.

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Insurer Challenging Death Search Law

July 17th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Four Florida Insurers were in court this afternoon in the State Capitol, challenging a law that requires them to locate life insurance beneficiaries going back 25 years. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the companies say they don’t have to find anyone before the law was passed.

A year old Florida law requires life insurers to keep track of their customers who die and then track down the beneficiaries if a claim hasn’t been made. the four companies in Court say they are okay with finding beneficiaries polices of policies that were sold after the law took effect, but Attorney Barry Richard says the state can’t make them go back to 1992.
“What they can’t do Constitutionally, is impose it retroactively and say even though you followed the law, we’re going to change the law and you are going to go back and fix it at your cost” says Richard.

28 companies have settled and are not challenging the law.

The majority of the companies that settled with the state were already actively searching death records, so they knew when one of their policy holders died. They just didn’t do anything about it.

When passed, sponsorLizbeth Benacquisto estimated the state residents could be entitled up to up to a billion dollars.

“And if the beneficiary did not know they were named in that policy, and didn’t make a claim for those monies, the insurance companies kept the money” Benacquisto told the Senate.

The Companies in court say they never searched death records.

“The insurance company had an obligation to pay benefits upon proof of death, presented to it by survivors. It didn’t require insurance companies to constantly search records to see who died” says Richard.

An adverse ruling for the state in this case, could effectively stop the searchers being made prior to last year, leaving thousands of deceased policy holders wishes unfulfilled.

 

This afternoon, A circuit Judge in the Capitol told the state is must limit what records it wants to see and also limited the questions it can ask company officials when being deposed. The state promised to appeal the ruling.

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Former FAMU Admissions Official Sentenced on Bribery Charges

July 17th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

A former Florida A&M University admissions officer was sentenced to five years probation, sixty days in jail, and fined fifteen hundred dollars. 46 year old James Ulee plead guilty to taking bribes from two parents to get their kids into the university. Judge James hankinson turned down defense requests to without adjudication.

“The amount of money involved is not great. The trust that you you betrayed is pretty…pretty amazing” Hankinson told Ulee,

Ulee was caught when a third parent went to police.

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Miami Beach Mayor Phil Levine Wraps Up Bus Tour In Panhandle

July 14th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Miami Beach Mayor Phillip Levine is is finishing up a week long bus trip of Florida Friday night in the panhandle.
Levine stopped at a family owned country story in the state Capitol this morning before going on to Pensacola.
The tour is on behalf of Sirius XM radio, where he is a host, but Levine is expected to enter the Democratic primary for Governor.
He has Four million in the bank, half of which came from his personal wealth. Levine calls himself a radical centrist who thinks government can help both people and business.
“I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Our state is purple,” said Mayor Levine. “And the way you make purple is you mix red and blue, and that creates purple. for me, I’m a Democrat, but I always say and I’ll say it again, before I’m a Democrat, I’m an American. An awe stare so much more than what separates us. And I believe that Florida, Floridians share a lot in common.”
Levine says he will make a decision on the Governor’s race sometime this fall.

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Florida Students Excited For Bright Futures Boost

July 14th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Florida’s top scholars are getting ready to receive a big funding boost.
Beginning in August, an estimated 40,000 students in the state will get a boost in their scholarships to take off some of the financial burden.
Bright Futures has been covering about half of the average 51 hundred dollar a year tuition.
Now it will cover the entire cost.
“Even after tuition I still have my dorm and books so yeah I’m really excited,” said FSU student Abby Wingate.
Top Students will even have 300 dollar cash for books.
“It’ll definitely help my parents, my family cover that because they have me in school and then my sister as well,” said FSU student Elena Lavoll.
The average student loan debt for graduates leaving college in 2016 was more than $37,000.
Even with scholarships loans are a necessity for some.
In FSU student Rachel Faircloth’s case, she works two jobs on top of taking loans just to get by.
“I will definitely quit one of my jobs with the extra money and actually be able to spend my money and enjoy it,” said Faircloth.
Top recipients will also be able to use their bright futures over the summer for the first time.
The funding for the boost was included in this year’s appropriations bill, so the increase will run out after one year.
Governor Rick Scott vetoed the higher education bill that would have made the changes permanent, citing issues with the bill he felt would hurt community colleges.
Student’s with more than a year to graduation and younger siblings are hoping the legislature makes the changes permanent next year.
“My little sister, she does have Bright Futures so it would be awesome if they could help her or any friends,” said FSU student Lauren McDaniel.
Governor Rick Scott in his veto letter called upon the Legislature to make the additional funds permanent next session.
Committee meetings begin in the Fall.
The changes took affect July 1st, most students will start seeing money from the boost come Fall semester.

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Poor Internet Access and Low Parent Involvement Issues Florida Teachers Say

July 13th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Limited internet access outside the classroom and poor parental involvement are two of the biggest barriers poor performing students face in Florida according to a national study that includes Florida teachers.
The study says too many students come to school impoverished, hungry, or in need of healthcare,
More than half of Florida’s teachers say the lack of parent involvement is a major problem.
55% think students suffer from inadequate access to the internet.
Nationwide the survey response was just 48% for both.
Internet access can be a difficult hurdle for some students.
Many assignments are now online and the internet is often the go to place for research.
“Then those students go back to school the next day without having completed those assignments and it puts them at a disadvantage,” said Andrea Messina, Executive Director of the Florida School Boards Association.
About 3% of Florida schools have gotten D’s or F’s  for three straight years. That’s more 100 schools.
In impoverished areas, 70% of Florida teachers reported a lack of family involvement in student learning,  compared to just 26% in areas with low poverty levels.
Jason Flom, President of Corner Stone Learning Academy and an educational advocate, says Florida needs to do a better job at addressing students individual needs especially in Impoverished areas.
“So if you’ve got issues at home, poverty, broken home, family crisis, homelessness, temporary homelessness, coming to school hungry those are the shoes that we need to fit first before we can ever do anything academically speaking,” said Flom.
The newly enacted and controversial Schools of Hope program will fund wrap around services like after school programs for 25 of Florida’s perpetually under-performing schools.
More than 75 other low performing schools will have to do without.
Florida teachers also were more likely than their national counterparts to report their districts did not do enough to make time for families whose schedules prevent them from attending school events or parental conferences.

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50,000 Unclaimed Assets Held By the State Will Soon Be Auctioned Off

July 12th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
One in Five Floridians has something of value that has gone unclaimed. It is now in the state’s hands.
There are seven million accounts totaling just shy of 2 billion dollars.
The items could be an uncashed paycheck, a lost utility deposit, or jewelry left in a forgotten safety deposit Box.
“We found a rather large diamond ring that an individual didn’t want to claim, because it reminded her of a previous relationship that she didn’t want to think of,” said Ashley Carr, Director of Communications for the Chief Financial Officer.
After property sits unclaimed in a bank account for up to five years, it’s forwarded to the state and deposited in the state school fund.
But it’s always your’s for the claiming. You can find out if you left something unclaimed by going to the Great Florida Treasure Hunt dot Org.
“Fill out some documents, send us all that information in the mail and we’ll send you a check. It’s as simple as that,” said Carr.
Between 2016 and 2017 The state returned $313 million the most in the programs 56 year history, back to Floridians.

It’s important that you claim any lost tangible assets quickly because after two years. they go up for auction.

But don’t worry. Even if grandma’s jeweled watch has already been auctioned off, you are still entitled to the cash from the sale.
“So if the owner ever does come forward, we’ll give them every penny that we received at auction. They’re still not losing out. It’s available to them for free anytime,” said Carr.
This year two auctions will be held.
The first is at the end of July, which means you only have a few weeks to find out if the state is holding something of yours that could soon be sold.
Around 50,000 items will be available at the first auction.
To see if you have any unclaimed assets or for more details on the Division of Unclaimed Property’s upcoming auctions, go to FLTreasureHunt.org.

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Mental Health Advocates Fear Repercussions of Budget Cuts from Drug Treatment

July 11th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Governor Rick Scott spent the day touting new legislation increasing penalties for opioid dealers, but advocates say the lawmakers failed to address a key issue… treatment for addicts.
Ten Floridians die each day from opioids.
Florida ranks 49th for per capita spending on mental health.
This year lawmakers cut mental health and addiction services by over 11 million.
“Those communities are now going to have to figure out how do they reconfigure to still try and accomplish that task, but obviously with 40% less money they wont be able to live up to that goal and expectation set,” said Mark Fontaine, Executive Director of Florida Health Behavioral Association.
Advocates say community treatment centers are already experiencing high volumes of patients.
In many cases there aren’t enough beds or resources to help everyone who comes through their doors.
Lawmakers did beef up spending for law enforcement to fight the crisis. Penalties for dealers were increased.
Mental health advocates say without increased addiction services, they’re fighting a losing battle.
Jane Johnson with Florida Council for Community and Mental Health says the state can’t arrest its way out of the problem.
Jane Johnson
Florida Council for Community Mental Health
“If we had an adequate infrastructure in our communities, through our community mental health centers so that those folks who would get picked up can go into a recovery oriented environment,” said Johnson. “They could get the support that they need so they could come out on the other side and contribute to society.”
Many drug addicts deal with addiction as well as mental health issues.
That’s why advocates say until the state prioritizes services to help with underlying issues, nothing will change.
“We have to change our view of that and look at it as a disorder like diabetes or cancer,” said Melanie Brown-Woofter with Florida Council for Community Mental Health.
In addition to the $11 million dollar cut this year, $21 million in federal funds end after 2 years, putting the state in an even more precarious situation.
The federal funding does help with medication assisted treatment, but doesn’t go towards detox or residential treatment facilities.

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