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Push to Reform Clemency in Florida Taking a Three Pronged Approach

December 8th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
There’s a three pronged effort to restore felons rights happening in the state, with a proposal in front of the Constitutional Revision Commission, a ballot initiative gaining signatures and Legislation.
1.5 million Floridians are unable to vote because of felony convictions.
More than 22,000 felons are waiting to be granted clemency by the OEC or Office of Executive Clemency, but only a few hundred are processed each year. The average wait time is 9 years.
“They’ll never catch up. Putting more money into the OEC, to me, is not a solution. If we double, triple, quadruple staff, we’re still not going to get the numbers as everyday, more and more felons are leaving the system,” said Representative Cord Byrd.
New Legislation sponsored by Byrd would give judges the authority to restore felons rights after the person serves their time and pays any outstanding fines.
“All we’re doing is asking the same court that sentences that person to be able to restore their rights,” said Byrd.
Under the proposal, felons would be allowed to have a judge review their case once a year.
Justice advocates argue the courts are already backed up. Allowing judges to restore felons rights would add to the work load, potentially resulting in what we have now…a  backlog.
There are also constitutional concerns.
“The constitution doesn’t allow for that process. We have a process where the Cabinet does all the reviews for everybody that’s actually trying to get their rights restored,” said Barney Bishop with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance.
There are efforts to change the constitution. The Constitutional Revision Commission is considering an amendment that would automatically restore non-violent felons’ right to vote after they serve their time. A similar amendment has collected more than 490,000 valid signatures with as many as 500,000 more yet to be validated. Only 766,200 signatures are required for the proposal to make it on the ballot.

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Fantasy Sports Legalization on the Move

December 7th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Nationwide Fantasy Sports are a 150 billion dollar a year industry, but in Florida their legality is murky.
A new bill, approved 8 to 1 this morning, would officially legalize the games, but the Seminole Tribe is warning lawmakers to make their decision with caution.
Florida has been trying to clear up the legal limbo surrounding Fantasy Sports games since 2015. Despite the game’s questionable legal status roughly 3 of every twenty people in the state actively play and the companies regularly  advertise to the public.
Legislation approved by a Senate committee would officially give the green light to the games. Senate Sponsor Dana Young says this year the stand alone proposal has a shot.
“It routinely has been bundled up into larger gaming packages, which has led to its demise,” said Young.
While there are three million Floridians enjoying these games on a regular basis. 9 states have explicitly banned them.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida sent a letter to Legislative leaders, saying the legalization of the games would be an expansion of gambling and violate the tribes exclusivity compact with the state.
Young says the games are based on skill and don’t violate the pact.
“It’s matching my ability to look at statistics and the abilities of specific players and put together a strong team,” said Young.
Senator Jeff Brandes says he trusts Young will be able to work out the kinks in the legislation.
“These things evolve during session so I look forward to seeing how it all plays out,” said Brandes.
If the tribe pulls out of the compact, it would cost the state $200 million a year.
The bill doesn’t allow for betting on high school and college sports.

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Florida Legislators Want to Take Medicaid Expansion to the Voters

December 7th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
After Maine voters approved an expansion of Medicaid, a bill has been filed in the Florida Legislature to give Floridians the option to expand Medicaid coverage in the state.
Sponsors say recent polls show 70% of Floridians support the expansion. The proposal would allow people making up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level to gain access to the program. Senate Sponsor Annette Taddeo says 877,000 new Floridians would qualify if the expansion is approved.
“They fall into that gap where they actually are employed, they make a living that I wouldn’t call a good living, but not enough to buy health insurance,” said Taddeo. “So they fall into this gap where we are punishing them for working. “
Sponsors estimate the state loses $6 billion in Federal aid as a result of the state not chasing to expand Medicaid.

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House Introduces Anti Texting Legislation

December 6th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Police may soon be able to stop you if they see you texting behind the wheel. The legislation is getting a major boost from the House Speaker, who has so far opposed the idea. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, concerns are also being raised about increased racial profiling.

Removing the words “secondary offense” from the state’s anti texting law has been an uphill battle. The deletion was routinely blocked by House leadership, who wouldn’t even consider the idea over because of privacy concerns.  Now House Speaker Richard Corcoran is supporting tougher enforcement.

 

“So we say if you want to look at someone’s phone, you’ve got to get a warrant. You can’t confiscate their phone. You can’t intimidate them to voluntarily give you their phone” says the House Speaker

 

Demetrius Branca has spent the last three years talking to high school students and fighting for tougher laws. His son, Anthony was killed by  texting driver in 2014. And dad Demetrius says he’s surprised, but thrilled by the House’s change of heart.

“You know, better late than never, but they recognize the dangers of it and they are finally doing something about it” say Branca, who did traffic safety presentations at two high schools Wednesday.

Opposition remains.

Black lawmakers are worried the bill will open the door for more racial profiling. They raised the same concerns when seatbelt were the issue.

 

Senator Audrey Gibson says one way to avoid profiling is to require hands free cell phone use.

“If we have hands free, then there’s no question and there’s no issue” says the Jacksonville Senator.

Demetrius Branca says he shares the profiling concerns. But he says there is a bigger picture.

 

“Racial profiling is real and its something we need to be on guard for without a doubt, but people are dying on the streets. People are dying because other people are not paying attention to the road” says Branca, who has made passing tougher laws almost a full time job.

And with the speakers support, police, who see drivers texting everyday, are one step closer to stopping those drivers without needing another reason to issue a ticket.

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Children Advocates Get Early Start Lobbying For Funds Expiring in Two Years

December 6th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Dozens of advocates for children have spent the last three days lobbying lawmakers for money. Florida has two years to replace one hundred million in Federal funding for child and foster care services. The grant was a one time, five year appropriation used to try and keep families intact by providing in home services and provide adoption assistance. Children’s Advocates, including Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll say they hope state lawmakers make up the difference.
“So we’ll take it step by step. We feel pretty confident that if we start working on it now we can put Florida in a pretty good place and we hope to close the whole gap. I don’t know if we can, but we hope to, but if we don’t start now we’re going to face a cliff,” said Carroll.
Without the money, advocates fear it could lead to thousands more Florida children ending up in foster care.

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New Bill Would Allow Judges To Restore Felons’ Civil Rights

December 6th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Florida Lawmakers filed new legislation this morning to combat a backlog of felons looking to have their rights restored after paying their dues to society.
Currently, felons have to be approved by the state Clemency Board to have their right to vote and own a gun restored. More than 20,000 people are on the waiting list, some have been on it for ten years or more. The new bill would allow judges to restore the rights of convicted felons, opening up a new avenue for those looking to fully rejoin society.
“And it also requires participation by the individual. The bill requires that the State Attorney in the locale be notified so the state would have the opportunity to be heard an object or to agree with that person getting their rights restored an ultimately allows a judge to do what they do best which is judge and make a determination as to whether or not that person should have their full set of rights restored,” said House Sponsor, Representative Cord Byrd.
Felons would be eligible to have a judge hear their case once a year under the proposed law.

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Bill to Increase Penalties on Animal Cruelty Moves Forward

December 6th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Stopping the abuse of animals is on the legislatures front burner.
A bill that would increase penalties for abusers passed its first House committee unanimously Wednesday morning.
The hope is tougher  penalties will catch offenders before their abuse spreads to people.
Earlier this year video from a police body camera, depicting a case of animal abuse where a Labrador Retriever puppy name Ponce was beaten to death, shocked the state.
“The dog was gagged, bleeding from the mouth and dead,” said Representative Thomas Leek.
The new Legislation entitled, Ponce’s Law would increase penalties for animal abuse by giving judges more leeway to hand out longer prison sentences.
“We’re going to make animal cruelty much more serious in Florida law. You know it is a felony, but now it’s a more serious felony. We recognize that anybody who can do this to an animal is a dangerous person in our community,” said Laura Bevan, Director of the Eastern Regional Office of the Human Society.
Animal abuse is often a red flag for future violent and abusive behavior towards people, including children in some cases.
“Whenever you abuse things like that, that’s a possibility, that it could bleed over into child welfare and even into spousal abuse and so forth,” said Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children.
The bill also gives courts the ability to prohibit an abuser from owning or interacting with animals.
Because there is no animal abuser database in existence, it will be difficult to ensure an abuser won’t be able to obtain another animal.
Sponsors say enforcement will rely heavily on the community keeping an eye on abusers.
Ponce’s Law grew out of a community effort in Daytona, where the dog was killed.
The group gathered more than 70,000 signatures in support of the Legislation.

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Public Employee Unions Face Mandate to Boost Membership

December 5th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Public employees could see their unions put out of business if they don’t maintain at least a 50 percent membership. And Mike Vasilinda tells us, unions say the idea has more to do with politics than good government.

It is unions, more often than not, that bring hundreds if not thousands to the state Capitol to rally against what they consider bad public policy.

“Enough is enough” chanted a hoard of teachers last year.

And it is Democrats more often than not who get union endorsements.

“Vote them out! Vote them Out.” Was the cry of a union rally at the Capitol.

Now a GOP sponsored bill would require at least half of the people working in a unit represented by a union, actually be union members. Sponsor Scott Plakon says it seems only fair.

“One person could claim to represent ten thousand, and again, I don’t think that’s right” Plakon told a House committee.

While the committee debated, two dozen union members, including Tallulah Thomas, who is a Behavioral Specialist at Florida State Hospital, protested outside.

“We do not do this job to become rich or famous. We do this because we believe in the work” says Thomas.

Not included in the fifty percent membership requirement? Public safety agencies.

Public safety unions are more likely to be bipartisan in their political endorsements.

Florida Education Association President JoAnn McCall pulled no punches when we asked if the bill was union busting.

“This is definitely political” says McCall.  This is about silencing a voice. We have been politically active.  We speak up. We speak out.”

It’s sponsor, though,  says it’s just good public policy.

Q:”Are you trying to bust unions?”

“You know they said that on the House floor last year. And a, again. this is about transparency, democracy, and accountability” says Representative Plakon, who filed the bill last years and in 2011.

The legislation is expected to clear the House early in the legislative session. It’s future in the Senate is uncertain.

And opponent are already saying that a court challenge is a certainty of they legislature tries to take away their rights to bargain.

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State Legislators Pushing Major Juvenile Justice Reform

December 5th, 2017 by Jake Stofan

Florida prosecutes more children as adults than any other state, but new Legislation would reform he way the state handles non-violent offenses committed by minors.

 

 

Miguel Rodriguez was sentenced as an adult for breaking into a home at the age of 15.

 

“We thought this abandoned house was abandoned and nobody was going to be hurt by what we were doing,” said Rodriguez.

After breaking his parole at the age of 21, he was sent to prison for three years.

 

“I was arrested for a technical violation where I was at work past curfew,” said Rodriguez.

Since 2009 14,000 kids like Miguel, some as young as 10-years-old, have been indicted as adults in Florida.

The new legislation would prohibit children under 14 from being prosecuted as adults for non-violent crimes. It would also take away the power of prosecutors to directly send 14 and 15-year-olds to adult court.

 

“Kids are going to make mistakes,” said PTA Committee Member Dawn Steward. “Should they pay for the rest of their life because of a non-violent crime or a non-violent issue?”

The Campaign for Youth Justice found Minors held in adult prisons are 36 times more likely to commit suicide compared to those in juvenile detention centers.

A study found 80% of Floridians believe juveniles convicted of a crime as an adult should serve their time in juvy until they turn 18.

The proposal would require juveniles serving in adult prisons be segregated from adult prisoners.

Senate Sponsor Bobby Powell says lowering the amount of minors prosecuted as adults will also help the economy.

 

“It definitely is a blemish on their record and makes it more difficult for them to get a job,” said Powell.

The Legislation would also prevent children from losing their right to vote as a result of being prosecuted as an adult.

The proposal also gives judges more say in prosecuting children as adults and require them to justify why adult penalties are necessary when a minor is given an adult sentence.

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Legislation Filed to Protect Religious Freedom of Businesses

December 5th, 2017 by Jake Stofan

As the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case in which a Colorado baker refused to make a specialty cake for a gay wedding, claiming it violated his Christian faith, a Florida Lawmaker has filed a bill taking the bakers side.

The Legislation would protect businesses in the state from state sanctions in cases where they refuse to create something because of their religion. Social Justice advocates fear the proposal would open the door for discrimination to be disguised as religious freedom.

Sponsor Representative Jay Fant says it will make Florida more attractive to businesses.

 

“That’s why I call it the Free Enterprise Protection Act. We want to expand business in Florida. We want to employ more people. We want Governor Scott to claim that he has even more jobs in the state. This is to give comfort to small business owners and entrepreneurs to say, ” I’m not going to be persecuted by the state for my religious beliefs,” said Fant.

Fant says the protections granted to businesses in his bill wont allow for discrimination of minority groups, noting the Civil Rights Act protects special classes from being denied a service.

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First Call for Latvala Resignation

December 5th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

State Senator Jack Latvala says he’d rather fight than quit over allegations of sexual harassment. The Clearwater Senator has fought back against a lone accuser over claims he touched her improperly. Now, State Senator Travis Hutson has become the first Senate colleague to call for his resignation.

 

“And I don’t know if he is guilty of this or not. That’s between him and her. But attacking his accuser publicly, releasing text messages, I mean he is coming after this entire political process. I feel like he is trying to burn it all to the ground. I really do. And I think it’s only going to get worse for everyone involved, and I think the best thing would be a resignation from Senator Latvala” says Hutson..

Latvala has repeatedly said he is not guilty and is still a candidate for Governor, although he’s acknowledged the investigation has sidetracked his efforts, He says with the campaign all but gone he has only his name and reputation for which to fight.

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Sexual Harassment Charges remain a “Distraction”

December 4th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

Sexual harassment charges in the state Capitol are escalating.  A special prosecutor has now been requested to investigate the claims. The request comes, as Mike Vasilinda tells us, following the hiring of a private security firm to protect the woman who is making the harassment claim.

The letter dated Sunday, requests a special prosecutor to look into a battery against Senate Staffer Rachel Perrin Rogers. Lawyer Tiffany Crews says her client was the victim of battery after unwanted touching by State Senator Jack Latvala.

Last week, Governor Rick Scott called the whole matter distracting. He says “It seems that everyone in Tallahassee is talking about this and not how to make Florida better.” The Senate cancelled two meetings Monday.  Senator Linda Stewart says at the investigation is taking it’s toll.
Q:”It seems like the Senate business has slowed down, a month away from the beginning of session?”

“I agree with you there.”

Q:”It has slowed down?”

“It has definitely slowed down” Stewart told us.

Attorney General Pam Bondi is also weighing in, saying the accuser is “a woman who I’ve known and respected for years” adding “My heart breaks for her”.

“I’ll tell you, I can’t remember some of the cases I prosecuted so long ago” Bondi told us.

Bondi herself has said she has been the object of unwanted attention.

“But I can remember every single incident when I felt like I was inappropriately approached by a man. None of them were ever supervisors, ever” she continued.

And in odd twist, the accuser has hired a body guard.

Neither the alleged victim nor the Security guard were in her Senate Majority office Monday at noon. But included in the gallery of Senate Republicans on the majority office wall?  The man she is accusing of harassment and now a crime.

 

And another powerful man in the state Capitol is paying the price for his actions. Former State Representative Rich Workman was appointed to the Public Service Commission in September. He resigned today after the Senate Rules Chairman, Lizbeth Benacquisto, said she had been improperly touched by Workman.

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Police Still Investigating Pi Kappa Phi Pledge’s Death More than a Month Later

December 4th, 2017 by Jake Stofan

 

20-year-old Pi Kappa Phi pledge Andrew Coffey died November third, at an off campus fraternity party.

The Tallahassee Police Department says results of a toxicology report have yet to be released.

No arrests have been made.

The department is still in the process of interviewing at least 50 people.

 

“And that is simply what’s taking the time is that we have to go through each and every person, because if this was your loved one or family member you would not want us to stop at 22, because 23 may have the most important information in the case,” said TPD Public Information Officer Dave Northway.

In the days after Coffey’s body was discovered the Pi Kappa Phi chapter at FSU was permanently closed.

The university also moved to suspend all Greek Life following the death.

Some students on campus say they’ve noticed a change in the atmosphere over the past month.

Ariel Baron says the ban has made a positive impact on the campus.

 

“It just seems to be a little bit less tense. A little less like, it always seem like someone was trying to hid something I guess,” said Baron.

Others like Sam Morrison say they miss the charitable side of Greek Life.

 

“I think that’s more the thing than the actual drink ban,” said Morrison.

At least one student told us, despite the alcohol ban,  FSU’s partying habits remain unchanged.

Student’s have simply had to find new venues.

 

“Just the lack of fraternity parties. There’s just a couple more house parties, a couple more [people] going out,” said Sonja Mihailnovic.

FSU tells us talks between the university and Greek Life are on-going.

They’re working on programs, policies and procedures that the university can create and implement to prevent future deaths.

The goal is to announce those policies sometime next semester.

We reached out to the office of Fraternity and Sorority Life at FSU for an update on the discussions between the university on Greek Life following the suspension, but were denied comment.

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Holiday Memorial Held for Veterans at the State Capitol

December 4th, 2017 by Jake Stofan

A ceremony honoring Veterans was held at the State Capitol Monday morning.

It was part of a national program called Wreaths Across America.

Th program began with the laying of 5000 wreaths in Arlington National Cemetery, but soon spread across the country and even to over seas cemeteries, with over 300 ceremonies.

Retired Naval Captain Charles Parker says he knows how hard the holidays can be for soldiers overseas.

 

“Well sometimes I say it’s like, it’s the loneliest time in the world surrounded by 5,000 people who are experiencing the same thing, but you know the comradery is there and the Government always takes wonderful care of us on Christmas. It’s a time you’re sorry you can’t be with your family, but you’re glad you’re with friends,” said Parker,.

The holidays are also hard on families of service members.

Especially for those like Tammy Wise-Thrash, who lost her son.

 

“It’s always soothing and healing to understand that the one that you love so much is remembered by so many and this particular ceremony is very important because it really target our young people and gets the young people involved and that means the world,”: said Wise-Thrash.

This is the ninth year the ceremony has been held at the State Capitol.

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Latvala Accuser Text: “Dreams He Lost Weight”

December 1st, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

 

There are new text messages from the accuser tonight in the ongoing sexual harassment investigation of Clearwater State Senator Jack Latvala. The message surfaced after Latvala released dozens of messages Thursday. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, employment experts say the messages raise serious concerns.

In a newly released text message sent by accuser Rachel Perrin Rogers to another female Senate employee, Perrin Rogers says she had a dream about State Senator Latvala, including that he lost weight, a hundred pounds, and had dark hair. It follows the release of dozens of other messages between the accuser and Latvala in which she asks for help getting her step father out of jury duty, sends smily faces, and offers him cake. Employment lawyer Marie Mattox says the messages complicate her claim

Q: “Do those things, as an attorney, dilute her claim?” We asked.

 

“Absolutely” says Mattox. “If you have someone who is continuing to communicate and it appears to be an ongoing consensual relationship, than that would affect not only a lawyer’s evaluation, but its likely also how a jury looks at the case.”

In another text message obtained by Latvala’s lawyers, Rachel Perrin rogers says the message about the dream was a fake.

 

Latavala says the messages, which were all sent after the time Perrin Rogers says the harassment began exonerate him.

“Preparing meals for me, and so forth I think refutes this whole line of complaints that she has made” Latvala says.

 

The lawyer for Perrin Rogers confirms she was interviewed by the Senate Special master on Friday morning. She also says a criminal complaint remains an option.

Attorney Tiffany Cruz did not return a followup email when we asked about the dream text. Her statement was made earlier in the day before the latest text message

 

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