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Opioid Deaths Down as State Celebrates Victory in Opioid Settlement

July 12th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

The US scored a major victory in a lawsuit against a British opioid manufacturer, Thursday.

The news comes as new statistics Florida’s opioid crisis may be on the decline.

The latest interim report from the state’s Medical Examiners Commission shows there were nearly 300 fewer opioid deaths in the first half of 2018, compared to the first half of 2017.

“We are actually guardedly optimistic,” said Melanie Brown-Woofter, President of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

Brown-Woofter said the drop suggests Florida’s multi-faceted approach to tackling the crisis may be paying off.

“There’s increased training with emergency responders, with ED Departments (Emergency Departments) and with medical prescribers, so that prescribing patterns have changed,” said Brown-Woofter.

The report was released just days before the US Government solidified a $1.4 billion settlement with the British opioid manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser.

Florida was part of the lawsuit and could be entitled to a portion of the winnings.

$200 million will be dispersed among states involved in the case for Medicaid reimbursement.

Florida’s Attorney General Ashley Moody Tweeted the recovery,”Should send a strong message to anyone engaging in illicit conduct to increase drug dependency.”

The Attorney General will also have access to additional tools to aid in the state’s current and possible future lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors, thanks to a law passed during the 2019 legislative session.

The law allows Moody to access to the state’s prescription drug monitoring database.

Despite the victories, Florida’s opioid crisis is far from over.

“We’re still in the middle of an incredible epidemic and we need to continue the fight using all available resources so that we can eliminate it,” said Brown-Woofter.

The latest numbers suggest 17 Floridians continue to die each day from opioids.

The Commission’s report also showed deaths attributed to the potent opioid Fentanyl skyrocketed 65% between the first half of 2017 and 2018.

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Former Jackson County Sheriff’s Deputy Accused of Planting Drugs Has Bail Set at $169,500

July 11th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

A fired Jackson County Sheriff’s Deputy charged with planting drugs on unsuspecting motorists was himself making a first appearance after his arrest on 33 felonies ranging from official misconduct to fabricating evidence to false imprisonment.

On Thursday, the fired deputy Zach Wester found himself in the same position he put at least nine other people in, sitting in jail, facing a judge setting his bond.

In addition to the nearly three-dozen felonies, Wester is also facing 19 misdemeanors.

His lawyers asked for a $51,000 bond.

“I don’t think there’s any thing to show he will not appear,” said Wester’s attorney Ryan Davis.

The judge more than tripled the defenses request, setting Wester’s bond at $169,500.

As part of any bail, the Wester may not have any contact with any of the victims.

Wester’s parents and wife watched the hearing near tears.

His father is a law enforcement veteran with the same agency.

“He obviously denies the allegations,” said attorney Tim Jansen, who is also representing Wester.

When asked how Wester could deny video evidence taken from his own body camera during a 2018 traffic stop, which appears to show Wester planting drugs in a woman’s purse, Jansen said the legal team had not seen any of the evidence yet.
“We requested a high monetary bond in this case because of the nature of the offenses. It was a pattern of ongoing conduct, and it went to the heart of the nature of the criminal justice system,” said prosecuting attorney Thomas Williams.

In Jackson County 119 cases have already been dismissed.

At least 14 cases in Liberty county, where Wester first worked, are also being thrown out.

But like all of the victims in this case, their records are stained with an arrest.

“I can’t say that even though they were arrested prosecuted, and maybe entered a plea,” said 2nd Judicial Circuit State Attorney Jack Campbell. “I can’t say they whether they were guilty or not because I no longer have confidence in the officer that was involved in that case.”

FDLE logged more than 1,400 man hours to make their case.

Prosecutors say they are ready if the defense requests a speedy trial.

However the case remains open.

FDLE has asked any other potential victims to come forward.

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Governor Requests Civil War Statue Be Swapped With Civil Rights Activist

July 11th, 2019 by Jake Stofan


On what would have been Mary McLeod Bethune’s 144th birthday, Governor Ron DeSantis formally requested a statue of the civil rights leader replace Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith, who currently represents Florida in Statuary Hall.

“In 154 years of Statuary Hall, there has never been an African American to represent a state,” said Former State Representative Patrick Henry in 2018.

Henry sponsored Legislation that same year that formally approved Bethune to replace Smith, who had represented Florida in D.C. for nearly 100 years.

There was still the question of what would become of the general.

Towson Fraser was part of the committee tasked with picking a new home.

“We had three proposals, is my recollection,” said Fraser who sits on the Florida Council on Arts and Culture. “One of which was going to be in St. Augustine. One was actually a Jacksonville doctor who just wanted to put it in his home.”

The winning bidder was ultimately a Central Florida museum in Lake County.
“They made a real commitment to display the statue with the entire historical context,” said Fraser.

Despite the historical context included in the planned exhibit, there are some groups of Lake County residents who have protested the general’s move to their community.

But Fraser said the museum was ultimately the best choice.

“Where it could be displayed and the entire story could be told. Not just stuck in a warehouse somewhere, or as some of the other proposals, put in someone’s personal home,” said Fraser.

Bethune’s statue is currently being constructed in Italy by South Florida sculptor Nelda Comas.

It’s expected to be completed in 2020.

The cost of constructing the new statue was paid for by Bethune-Cookman University, which raised $400,000 to foot the bill.

Moving expenses for the general will be covered by Lake County.

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Court Ruling Threatens to Shake Up Florida’s Medical Marijuana Industry

July 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A bomb shell ruling issued Tuesday is threatening to shake up the state’s medical marijuana business industry. 
The appellate court ruling has sent shockwaves through the state and it could lead to more competition in the marketplace.
The ruling found the state’s seed to sale model established in 2017 violated the amendment passed by voters the previous year.
“It’s significantly important,” said Jeff Sharkey with the Florida Medical Marijuana Business Association.
Sharkey said it could open the door for more specialized businesses to get into the marketplace.
“So if you want to be a grower, if you want to be a processor, if you want to be a distributor,” said Sharkey.
John Morgan, the crafter of the medical marijuana amendment, declared on Twitter soon after the ruling was issued the,  “War on weed is a thing of the past.”
After taking office, Governor Ron DeSantis was quick to criticize the state’s current system.
“They created a cartel essentially,” said DeSantis at a January press conference. “I don’t know that the amendment necessarily prohibits that, but that is not good policy.”
Even the architect of the seed to sale model, now Congressman Matt Gaetz took shots at his own work.
“We wrote the legislation that way not because it was necessarily best for patients, but it’s because that how we had to do it to get the votes,” said Gaetz at the same press conference.
The ruling also strikes down caps on dispensaries.
At last count, 22 growers licenses have been granted.
Ten license holders haven’t dispensed any medical marijuana.
However, the ruling  doesn’t open the door for unlimited licenses to be granted, which a lower court had ordered.
The court directed the Florida Department of Health to draft a new system more inline with the amendment.
“To have the department really think through what’s a reasonable number of licenses  to meet the 21 million people in Florida, the patients’ needs,” said Sharkey.
Ultimately the Legislature would likely have to pass a new law if the state chooses not to appeal the ruling.

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Deputy Arrested for Planting Drugs

July 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A former North Florida Sheriff’s Deputy was arrested and charged with planting illegal drugs on unsuspecting motorists on Wednesday. 
The strongest evidence in the case is the Deputy’s own body camera footage.
In February 2018 Deputy Zachery Wester pulled over Teresa Odom.
He said her brake lights didn’t work.
He then asked if Odom would consent to a search of her vehicle.
The Deputy’s body cam video showed a white substance in his hand as he prepared to search. 
The drugs ended up in Odom’s purse, before he arrested her despite her cries that the drugs didn’t belong to her.
Months later prosecutors discovered the video.
Wester was suspended then fired. 
119 cases in Jackson County were dismissed soon after. 
When Wester was arrested in a Walmart Wednesday morning, the fired deputy was found with drug paraphernalia.
If convicted on all counts, the fired Deputy faces more than 100 years in prison.
“It’s an important case, not only for the victims, who spent time innocently, innocent victims who spent time in jail because of the actions of Mister Wester, but also for the law enforcement community,” said FDLE Spokesperson Gretl Plessinger.
Just outside Marianna in rural Jackson County, a billboard by Attorney Marie Mattox urged people to come forward. 
More than 30 have so far.
“Some of my clients have lost their children, lost their homes, they’ve been falsely imprisoned, and they have had tragedies in their lives because of what he’s done,” said Mattox.
Mattox said none of her clients ever asked about recovering money.
Instead, they just wanted to know when Wester be arrested.
“Very grateful for his arrest on behalf of my clients,” said Mattox.
In addition to the cases in Jackson County, 12 more in Liberty County were dismissed where Wester worked previously.
Wester remains in jail with out bail. 
He’ll have a first appearance Thursday morning.
The Department of Law Enforcement says the case is still open and is asking any additional victims to come forward. Deputy Arrested for Planting Drugs Faces 100 Years in Prison

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TaxWatch Says Florida Could Lose Billions if Undercounted in 2020 Census

July 10th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
Florida could loose out on billions of dollars from the federal government if the state’s population is undercounted in the 2020 Census.
That’s the message Florida’s lead fiscal watchdog, Florida TaxWatch, is emphasizing ahead of the constitutionally mandated headcount.
TawWatch highlighted a collaboration between the city of Tallahassee and Leon County Commission as an example other municipalities in the state should follow in order to ensure an accurate count.
TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro emphasized the important role counties and cities will play, since the state has thus far decided not to establish a census committee.
“This is a really critical fiscal issue. It’s a critical fiduciary issue and I really do believe, I’m not trying to defend anybody, but I think it’s ultimately a community based issue. Because when you get right down to it, who knows the neighborhoods? Not the state agencies. It’s the local communities,” said Calabro.
Tallahassee’s Mayor and the Chair of the Leon County Commission hold leadership positions at the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of counties.
Both said they plan to work to help other local governments prepare for the Census.

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Utility Companies Solidify Three-Year Hardening Plans, 10-Year Plans on the Horizon

July 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Storm hardening plans for 2019-2021 for Florida’s five major utility companies were approved by the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) Tuesday morning.
“I love the detail that some of the initiatives and some of the utilities covered,” said PSC Commissioner Julie Brown. 
The plans set the short-term goals for under-grounding power lines and reducing outages during storms, but the power companies will soon be required to take a long-term view of storm hardening.
The PSC began requiring the three-year plans in 2006, after Florida took the brunt of eight hurricanes over a two year period.
Following Hurricane’s Mathew, Irma and Michael lawmakers demanded utility companies look further out.
State Senator Joe Gruters sponsored a bill with that goal, that was signed by the Governor in June.
“Every day that we have a third of our state down costs the state a billion dollars a year in lost economic activity,” said Gruters in May.
The new law is set to take effect later this year.
It will require companies to develop a 10-year hardening plan.
The focus will be on under-grounding power lines and vegetation management.
“It will hopefully make sure that Florida is ready for these storms in the foreseeable future and that we get people back up and running, power back on earlier,” said Gruters.
Under the new law, utility companies will be able to request rate hikes upfront on an annual basis to cover the cost of grid hardening, instead of having to recover the money after the work has already been done.
How large of an increase customers may see isn’t clear.
“The cost of things like under-grounding and hardening are included in the base rates that customers pay,” said Mark Bubriski with Florida Power and Light Company. “How that changes going forward still remains to be seen, but I think that this will enable additional investment for customers, which will have a long term benefit.”
Before the plans can be submitted, the PSC must go through a rule making process, which has to be complete by Halloween.
The Public Service Commission will also be required to report to lawmakers each year on the progress of the utility companies’ hardening efforts. 

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Panhandle, Still Recovering, Braces for Another Storm

July 9th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Wednesday marks the nine-month anniversary of Hurricane Michael’s landfall in the Panhandle. 
As of Monday, there were still 21,669 open insurance claims and many are concerned about a tropical storm that could dump inches of rain later this week.
At the start of July a tarp was still covering part Art Kimbrough’s Marianna home.
The damage caused to his neighbor’s roof had just been repaired the previous week.
Blocks away, the floor of Kimbrough’s downtown art store and office was covered in plastic.
“Every time it rains, water is coming in,” said Kimbrough. “We have buckets over here.”
Kimbrough estimates he’ll have to empty buckets every two or three hours if the tropical storm expected to form over Georgia produces the three to five inches of rain that has been forecasted.
“Water comes down the wall, we try to steer it into buckets and keep it from doing any more damage than it can,” said Kimbrough.
Panhandle residents are still facing multiple roadblocks to recovery.
The first: Settling with their insurance companies.
Just under 15 percent of the more than 147,000 claims from Michael remain outstanding. 
“Well, on our house the initial claim came in at $27,000 and grew to a hundred and $72,000,” said Kimbrough. “On this building [the art store], initially it was $85,000. Now it’s a $186,000.”
Even when a company settles, labor is in short supply, which is why nine months later, Kimbrough’s roof is still leaking.
“Because there’s no brickmasons anywhere to be had. There’s a shortage of them to begin with. They have so much work to do in all the communities around here,” said Kimbrough.
Labor in high demand like brick layers and roofers are commanding as much as 25 to 50 percent more than they were making before Michael hit the Panhandle.
Given all the other struggles Panhandle residents have faced, the last thing they want is more rain. 

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Appellate Court Rules State’s Medical Marijuana Law Unconstitutional

July 9th, 2019 by Jake Stofan
In a major ruling with big consequences, an appellate court has upheld a judge’s ruling declaring the state’s medical marijuana law unconstitutional.
The First District Court of Appeal ruled that requiring marijuana licensee’s to control all aspects of production, from seeds in the ground to selling medical marijuana, violated the amendment approved by voters.
Jeff Sharkey of the Medical Marijuana Business Association said it will now be up to the Department of Health to draft new regulations.
“So if you want to be a grower, if you want to be a processor, if you want to be a distributor those options appear to be what the court is saying should be consistent with the amendment,” said Sharkey.

Sharkey said that would likely increase competition.

“It should yes. I think there’s a balance here,” said Sharkey. “I think on one hand, the court said that vertically integrated system is unconstitutional. On the other hand they said registering anybody who wants to get a license for cultivation or dispensing is really not in the public interest.”
Earlier in 2019, the Governor criticized the vertical integration of the marijuana business, but he has not yet weighed in on whether DOH will appeal the ruling.
Ultimately, state lawmakers will have to pass new legislation.

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More Local Governments Consider Plastic Straw Restrictions

July 8th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed five bills from the 2019 legislative session including one that would have temporarily blocked local governments from banning plastic straws. 
Since the bill was vetoed, more local governments in Florida are considering prohibitions on the single-use plastics.
Plastic straws are among the top five items collected off Florida beaches each year, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Nearly two dozen local governments in Florida have chosen to either limit or outright ban plastic straws.  

“It’s one tool in the tool box. It’s good to have a lot of tools available,” said Beth Alvi with Audubon Florida. “It helps with protection of water quality, restoring our water bodies.”

If not for the Governor vetoing the proposed legislation, local plastic straw bans would have been put on hold until at least 2024.

Across the street from the Capitol building, Leon County Commissioner Mary Ann Lindley saw the Governor’s veto as an opportunity.

“His veto to me said, no we want all hands on deck,” said Lindley. “We have problems and we would like to know what our communities around the state are doing.”

Lindley said the commission will consider a few different options for discouraging the use of plastic straws, but an outright ban isn’t the likely choice.

“One of them is to simply do kind of an educational outreach program, which I like,” said Lindley.

In the Governor’s veto letter, he said if people want to keep using plastic straws, they can elect local officials who feel the same way.

Aliki Moncrief, Executive Director of the Florida Conservation Voters, said she expects just the opposite.

“Constituents around the state are rising up saying, we actually don’t think single use plastics are as important to us as wildlife protection, as clean water,” said Moncrief.

That could put more pressure on state lawmakers to act on the issue.

While local governments are free to ban plastic straws for the time being, they are prohibited under state law from banning other single use plastics such as plastic shopping bags.

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FAMU Seeks to Educate Public About Medical Marijuana

July 8th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Florida now has more than 240,000 registered medical marijuana patients and they’ve all helped pay for dozens of initiatives helping people know more about the do’s and don’ts of the once illegal medication.
Becoming a medical marijuana patient takes a doctor’s recommendation and a valid state issued patient ID. 
The card costs $75 dollars, $10 of which goes toward education and research
Peter Harris runs the Florida A&M Medical Marijuana Educational and Research Initiative that’s charged with educating minority communities.
“The Department of Health is funding us to look into educating the public on the value of medical marijuana, but at the same time, educating the public on consequences of illicit use,” said Harris.
FAMU has already held more than a dozen forums and a dozen more are scheduled.
The main message of these forums is that medical marijuana can be useful.
“We’re basically changing the landscape on how you look at marijuana,” said Harris.
Each participant is asked to take a survey afterwards. 
Educators said they’ve found the intersection of legal and illegal marijuana causes confusion in many cases.
“You have to have a card and a product from a dispensary for it to be legal,” said Harris.
Even though doctors may give medical marijuana the okay, it faces resistance in some communities because it has been illegal for so long.
“There is definitely a stigma. The use of marijuana as a medicine in most communities,” said Harris. “It varies on how they accept what they accept, what they do and what they don’t do. ”
The research being done at FAMU is behavioral and 14 projects involving professors and students have been funded. 
The data is expected over the next 12 months.

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Felony Theft Limit Raised

July 5th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

New changes to the state’s criminal justice system took effect Monday.
The new laws are the result of  a multi-year effort by criminal justice advocates to reform what they’ve described as outdated laws in Florida.
One of the biggest victories scored by reformers in the 2019 session raises the felony theft threshold from $300 to $750.
“So that the punishment matches the crime more appropriately for modern times,” said Scott McCoy with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “That hadn’t been raised since the 80’s.”
While reformers are happy to see the threshold raised, they initially wanted to see it set at $1,000 or even $1,500.
The $750 limit was a compromise reached with retailers who worried raising the threshold would encourage thieves to steal higher priced items.
“Criminals are very smart,” said James Miller with the Florida Retail Federation. “They know what that theft threshold is and they steal just up to that limit, that way they’re quickly back out on the streets.”
Reform groups push back against that concept.
“If you steal something $750 and below you’re still committing a misdemeanor. It’s still a crime. You can still go to jail for up to a year,” said McCoy.
The Florida Retail Federation says part of the reason it supported the final bill is because it also extends the aggregation period for felony theft from 48 hours to 30 days.
That means if a thief steals $750 over a one month period, they’ll still be charged with a felony.
“We’re hopeful and confident this will help eliminate a lot of the organized retail crime rings,” said Miller.
Criminal justice reform groups hope the new law is only the first step.
Even at $750, Florida’s felony theft threshold remains the lowest in the South Eastern United States.
Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia all have felony theft thresholds set at more than $1,200.

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CFO Under Fire from Accused and Accuser

July 3rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is taking fire from both the state’s suspended top financial regulator who has been accused of harassment and the state employee who filed the complaint. 
The CFO made the employee’s complaint public, which may have violated state law.
Following the harassment allegation filed by a state employee against Office of Financial Regulation Commissioner Ronald Rubin, Patronis was quick to suspend the Commissioner and call for his permanent removal.
“If I could remove him unilaterally, I would, but it takes a cabinet effort to do that,” said Patronis in May.
Soon after, Patronis released a copy of the complaint, which sparked backlash from the employee who filed it.
The complaint form guarantees confidentiality while the investigation is ongoing.
“The reasons that you’ve got the protections that you do is to protect a victim, like this woman,” said Marie Mattox, and employment attorney. “Why would he do it? What would his motive be?”
The employee’s lawyer, Tiffany Cruz asked the Attorney General to investigate Patronis for the breach.
The AG instead passed the complaint to the Inspector General in charge of investigating the case against Rubin.
Employment attorney Richard Johnson said the Attorney General should be the one to take action.
“But she doesn’t want to mess with a fellow cabinet member,” said Johnson. “It would be very awkward for them at cabinet meetings I’m sure.”  
Rubin is also calling for an investigation into Patronis’ office. 
The Commissioner has accused the CFO of extorting campaign contributions in a pay-to-play scheme.
FDLE has confirmed it has received information regarding the allegations, but would not said from who or what it was.
Rubin’s accusations aside, Patronis could face up to a year in prison if found guilty of violating the public record law, although attorneys we spoke with said it would be unlikely outcome.
We reached out to the CFO for comment on this story, but didn’t receive a response.

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Jackson County Still Dealing with Hurricane Michael Aftermath

July 3rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Hard hit Florida Panhandle residents have said they feel like they’ve been forgotten by the rest of the state. 
Many are still without a permanent place to live, but those with a home are thankful.
Victims Billy and Robin O’Bryan still feel Hurricane Michael’s impacts.
Two trees brought down by winds hit their mobile home. 
“It only took about a week and a half to get out here. And thats when I found the trees on the house,” said Billy.
They spent more than four months in a pop-up camper with their adult son.
“We made do with what we had and we are thankful for it,” said Robin. “Was it hard? Oh yeah! Oh yeah. It’s hard when you didn’t have a bathroom.” 
When asked how they shower, Billy said it’s good to have friends.
“At the friends’ house where we had the camper set up, we used their shower and bathroom,” said Billy. 
The O’Bryan’s are among the lucky in Jackson County.
 Blue tarps on roofs remain plentiful there.
“There’s still a lot of people still without homes around the area and a lot of people can use some help,” said Billy.
Billy quit his job as a correctional officer to work with heavy equipment in order to afford the new mortgage.
The pay at the Department of Corrections simply wasnt enough.
“No. No. No sir. It might’ve, could’ve made it, but that would have been it. You’d been struggling every week,” said Billy.
The O’Bryan’s said that the downed trees that destroyed their mobile home will remain in place for some time.
For now, no one can afford to pick them up. 
Robin said she is ready to celebrate the 4th of July.
“More than just that, celebrate that I can celebrate, said Robin. “I’ve got a home.” 
They are also thankful there hasn’t been another storm in the Gulf this hurricane season.
Billy and his wife Robin O’Bryan said they are blessed. 

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FDLE’s “Decision Pending” Response Challenged

July 2nd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

The success of a case aimed at preventing delays in firearm background checks is in jeopardy because the state is destroying records vital to the plaintiffs. 
The debate played out in a Tallahassee courtroom Tuesday. 
As many as 25,000 people may have been temporarily denied the right to purchase a gun. 
They haven’t been told no, but have been told the decision is pending, which prompted the lawsuit.
The 53 page filing by Florida Carry argued not getting a solid yes or no within 24 hours has deprived people of their constitutional right to own a gun. 
“FDLE has put these people in a position of they have no rights,” said Eric Friday with Florida Carry. “They have no due process. They have no way to challenge FDLE’s non action.” 
The state argued a provision of the school safety law passed last year, superseded the 24 hour timeframe to get a background check done. 
The state’s lawyers said the provision makes sure people don’t fall through the cracks.
“Do what it needed to do in terms of the background check process to make sure it got it right,” said Rob Sniffen, a FDLE Attorney.
Under Florida law, the Department of Law Enforcement is required to destroy all records of a background check within 48 hours. 
That’s a problem for the plaintiffs because they need the records to prove their case.
The judge gave lawyers until July 12th to work out a compromise. 
Florida Carry said the problem is that every time it named a defendant, the state makes a final decision on the background check.
“They’ve said, ‘The case is moot, we’ve satisfied these people now. So there’s no case’,” said Friday. 
Florida Carry said it will keep adding new defendants, until as they put it, the state stops playing games.
The state has an appeal pending at the First District Court of Appeal, questioning whether it can legally not destroy the records from the plaintiffs’ background checks that show delays.

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