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Grand Jury Preparing to Investigate Pi Kappa Phi Pledge’s Death

December 15th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A Grand Jury in the State Capitol will  look into the death of an FSU fraternity pledge who died after a night of partying last month.
FSU student and Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity pledge Andrew Coffey was found dead in early November, following an off campus party.
The Tallahassee Police Department is still investigating the case.
“There were somewhere in the vicinity of fifty plus people that needed to be interviewed and that is simply what is taking the time,” said Officer Dave Northway with TPD.
Now, a Grand Jury is preparing to review the case.
State Attorney Jack Campbell says they’ll determine whether or not criminal charges are necessary.
“Tallahassee Police Department, Florida State University Police Department as well as those entities and the people who were involved at Pi Kappa Phi in total are all going to be places we’re trying to glean information,” said Campbell.
Days after the death, FSU announced it would suspend Greek Life on campus.
We caught up with frat members following the announcement. One member told us, “ We’re not suspended, you’re suspended.”
The phrase became a rallying cry for fraternities around the state.
It’s been displayed at frat houses at UCF and Gainesville.
It was also carved into a cave wall in Georgia and put on a Christmas sweater.
More than a month has passed since FSU suspended Greek Life following the death, But the university still doesn’t have a timeline for when the suspension will be lifted.
It’s the same message President John Thrasher has pushed since we spoke with him at FSU’s Homecoming Parade in November.
“That’s what all of this is about. We’re trying to find solutions, but we want the students to work with us to find those solutions,” said Thrasher.
The Grand Jury will hear testimony Monday and Tuesday.
A decision on whether charges will be filed is likely before Christmas.
FSU declined to comment on the upcoming  Grand Jury investigation.

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New App Release to Help Floridians Navigate the Legal System

December 15th, 2017 by Jake Stofan

A recent survey of civil cases in Miami-Dade County found 3 out of 5 people were representing themselves.

Florida’s Supreme Courts’ Commission on Access to Civil Justice has a new app to help those representing themselves navigate through the legal process.

The Florida Court Help App provides easy access to family forms, legal resources and helps steer people in the right direction to find assistance.

Former Florida Bar President Greg Coleman says the app is the commissions first step in addressing the problem.

“This is a very very important part of access to civil justice. We know there’s a need and we know there has to be an easier path and with Florida Courts Help the app we think we’re going to begin solving the problem” says Coleman.

The app is available for free on both Apple and Android devices.

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Missing Children Remembered at State Capitol

December 14th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
For the nineteenth time the names of Florida’s missing children were read aloud to a somber audience, and through the tears of families.
A rose given to each family by Florida’s First Lady, is placed next to a photo of their missing loved one.
Teresa Neves has been coming to the ceremony since 2009, when her granddaughter HaLeigh Cummings went missing.
“It’s very hard to have your child missing,” said Neves.
Despite years passing, the pain of losing a child never gets easier for a family, but at this event they have comfort of knowing they’re surrounded by people who have shared similar experiences.
“This is probably one of the hardest things to do every year, but it’s also one of the most supportive,” said Neves.
The event also honors Law Enforcement and others who have helped bring missing children home.
“We recognize citizens, bus drivers. It’s important that we have the children here and we talk about child protection and child safety,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen.
Polk County Deputy Jacob Durrance and his Bloodhound Chase won K-9 Trailing Team of the Year after they helped bring a suicidal 16-year-old girl home after she was reported missing. It’s his second time at the ceremony.
“It motivates me to keep doing the best job that i can so that we can return every child home,” said Durrance.
Last year, 33,000 incidents of missing children were reported to Florida law enforcement.
So far this year, 10 AMBER Alerts have been issued.
Since the program’s inception it’s helped rescue 69 children.
Each day roughly 2,000 children are reported missing in the United States. You can sign up to receive AMBER Alerts by text message by visiting www.missingchildrenalert.com.

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New Survey Show Floridians Are Unprepared For Future Hurricane Seasons

December 14th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A recent survey by the National Hurricane Survival Initiative found that 51% of Floridians say they were unprepared in at least one way leading up to Hurricane Irma and many are still unprepared for a future disaster.
The survey exposed numerous knowledge gaps in the states population from misunderstanding insurance coverage to not knowing about financing options that could help protect their homes.
Former FEMA Director Craig Fugate says the findings are a sign Floridians need to get ready sooner, as storm seasons like the one in 2017 are likely to become the new normal.
“The thing about 2017: three of the hurricanes set record for intensity, for pressure, for rainfall, and duration. Those are not records you want to keep breaking every year. But we did it in one year we see these more intense storms, we saw storms with more rain. Floridians need to take the time now between hurricane seasons to get ready before the storms strike again,” said Fugate.
While four out ten Floridians evacuated for the storm, one in four say after this Hurricane season they’re less confident in Hurricane forecasts after this season.

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Governor Rick Scott Signs Executive Order on Sexual Harrassment

December 13th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
Governor Rick Scott today issued an executive order  requiring state agencies to give sexual harassment training to new employees within 30 days of their hire. The order also lays out procedures for all agencies to follow when dealing with sexual harassment complaints.
“Every agency was doing it a little bit differently. What this did was set up a process where we have clear expectations of what the training would be, what the reporting process would be. It’s all just to make sure we have a process that works,” said Governor Scott.
Scott also said his PSC Appointee who withdrew his nomination after reports of lewd activity did the right thing.

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First Amendment Foundation Takes Aim at CRC

December 13th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
The First Amendment Foundation is criticizing the Constitutional Revision Commission for ignoring procedures and failing to comply with rules.
The criticisms include Commissioners advancing proposals that impact their own interests, and ignoring open meeting rules. Many meetings are cluttered with procedural errors, which have to be addressed during the meeting and then corrected. Attorney General Pam Bondi sits on the commission. She says she’s well aware of the issues, but is more concerned with some of the ideas being considered.
“Lots. Lots of procedural issues. My general opinion is I think a lot of this needs to be handled by the Legislature, not in our constitution. I think I’ve said that the entire time I’ve been Attorney General. You know we have to be careful how we change the constitution of our state, but again we’re looking at everything and hopefully some of this can be passed through the Legislature this year,” said Bondi.
Any amendment proposed by the Commission requires sixty percent voter approval next November.

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CRC Proposals to Extend Lobbying Ban on Elected Officials Temporarily Postponed

December 13th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A proposal temporarily postponed by the Constitution Revision Commission Ethics Committee Wednesday, would make it harder for elected officials to cash in on their service
State lawmakers must now wait two years before becoming lobbyists, but the proposed amendment would extend the ban to six years.
In Florida, state Lawmakers are barred from lobbying the Legislature after leaving office for two years. 34 other states have similar cooling off periods.
“Right to the very minute they can come back, they’ll come back,” said Be Wilcox, with Integrity Florida.
A proposed constitutional amendment being considered by the Constitutional Revision Commission would expand Florida’s lobbying ban to six years making them the strictest in the nation. Amendment sponsor Don Gaetz says the proposal would also extend the ban to include all elected officials in the state.
“A county Commissioner could not end his term and at the next meeting of the county commission show up as the paid lobbyist for the contractor who got a sweet deal that that county commissioner proposed in the meeting before,” said Gaetz.
The extension would make it more difficult for former elected officials to maintain their connections and influence over the body in which they served.
“By the time six years is over a lot of the people who you presided over when you were House Speaker or Senate President have moved on,” said Wilcox.
Some commissioners worry elected officials could sidestep the lobbying ban, by having their law-partners lobby on their behalf.
The amendment was temporarily postponed, while commissioners consider whether the ban should extend to law-partners of former officials. Commissioner Gaetz says it could be a step too far.
“It could bar people from legitimately conducting their business as attorneys or paid advocates,” said Gaetz.
Commissioners plan to take up the amendment again when they meet in January.
A similar proposal was also temporarily postponed, Wednesday. It would also ban Legislator from becoming lobbyists for six years, but wouldn’t apply to other elected officials.

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CRC Committee Temporarily Postpones Grandparents’ Rights Amendment

December 12th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
A decades long over grandparents rights remains in limbo after a proposed constitutional amendment expanding the rights of grandparents was temporarily postponed by a Constitutional Revision Committee Tuesday morning.
Currently, there are only two scenarios where grandparents can qualify for visitation rights with a grandchild. Both parents have to be dead or near dead, or one has to be dead and the other convicted of a felony.
The proposed amendment would allow a court to grant visitation rights if the state determines its in the best interest of the child.
“The compelling state interest puts the burden on the grandparents to show why the court should intervene in this case… to say there must be intervention because there is a danger or a demonstrable harm,” said James Karl with Alienated Grandparents Anonymous.
The proposal was met with a litany of concerns, especially whether the state has the right to intervene in private family matters.
“The Supreme Court has called the oldest fundamental liberty recognized by the court is that of the right to be a parent,” said CRC Commissioner Lisa Carlton.
There are also concerns because the proposal gives grandparents elevated rights over other relatives like aunts and uncles.
The concerns were enough to guarantee the amendment wouldn’t survive the committee as written. Members temporarily postponed the proposal for future revision. Amendment Sponsor, Darryl Rouson says he’s open to negotiation.
“You live to fight another day and to fight more strongly. You just reload and come back. So at least it didn’t die today,” said Rouson.
Whether increased grandparents rights survives wont be known until the commission wraps up its work in May.
If the amendment does eventually pass it’s likely to run into legal challenges based on previous US Supreme Court decisions, which favor the parents ultimate control over their child.

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CRC Gearing Up For Vote on Marsy’s Law in January

December 12th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
The Constitutional Revision Commission will consider a amendment, which would place victims rights in the state constitution. The proposal known as Marsy’s law, was named after a UC Santa Barbara student who was murdered in 1983. Seven other states have approved various measures. Many of the proposed rights are already backed by Florida case law. Supporters argue including them in the constitution will give them more legal weight. Jacksonville resident Mike Liles became an advocate after his wife was murdered this March. He says the strain of court hearings and upcoming depositions have been a struggle for his family.
“I had to sit quietly the other day, I’d say about 8 weeks ago, and listen to them assign the next hearing on August 22nd, which was to have been my 42nd wedding anniversary. I would have preferred to not have a hearing or have to see the monster that murdered my wife on the day that I should have been celebrating my 42nd anniversary and I didn’t have way to know how to stop that from happening,” said Liles.
Defense attorneys worry the law could result in more wrongful convictions, because it allows victims to refuse depositions. The proposal wont come to its first vote until January.

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Florida Police Found Twice as Many Credit Card Skimmers in 2017 than Previous Two Years Combined

December 11th, 2017 by Jake Stofan
More than 500 credit card skimmers were discovered on Florida gabs pumps in the first ten months of this year.
It’s twice as many as the previous two years combined. Florida on gas pumps.
Carlos Collins owns Unity Child Care Development School in Tallahassee. After fueling up his company vans his business partner noticed suspicious activity on his company card.
“So he went to about four Circle K’s and he went to two Publix. Then he went to Golden Corral and apparently had lunch,” said Collins.
In one day a scammer racked up $3,000, mostly on cartons of cigarettes.
“It was kind of disheartening, but I was determined that I could not sit back idly and just wait,” said Collins.
Carlos was able to acquire surveillance footage from the stores his card was used at and hand them over to law enforcement. Thanks to his leg work, the culprit was arrested just one day later.
“He had a bunch of skimming equipment and things of that nature,” said Collins.
Carlos’ situation is unique. Normally, investigations take months.
The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service estimated a skimmer will steal about 100 people’s information before it’s discovered. Costing victims an average of $1,000.
Skimmers are designed to be discrete, making them hard to identify.
This surveillance video shows a skimmer being installed on a card reader in Miami Beach.
“They’re often pretty good at masking them and they’re always moving that better,” said State Attorney of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Jack Campbell.
New state laws took affect in July that help law enforcement catch scammers. Scammers now can be sentenced up to 15 years for offenses. Also possession of the devices is now illegal.
“It’s illicit in its own right which allows us to shut it down before people are compromised,” said Campbell.
Using cards with chips makes it harder for skimmers to steal your information. There are even cellphone apps in development which will detect Bluetooth signals the skimmers send out.
Credit card skimmers have been found in 42 counties in the state this year according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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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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Jails could House Inmates Longer under Senate Plan

December 7th, 2017 by Mike Vasilinda

County jails could soon see inmates serving more time behind bars. Right now, anyone sentenced to more than a year goes to state prison, but as Mike Vasilinda tells us, A Committee in the state Capitol today voted to extend the time to two years.

Despite a massive effort to hire more correction officers, state prisons remain chronically understaffed. State Senators put Corrections Secretary Julie Jones on the hot seat Thursday.

“We’re two thousand down from 16 thousand.”

Now, lawmakers are floating the idea of shifting non violent short timers to local jails. State Senator Rob Bradley wants to double the time people can spent in county jails..from one year to two.

“We need to lower the number of prisoners that the Department of Corrections handles” Bradley told committee members.

Local jails would be paid, but that has been a problem in other states where sheriffs turned incarnation into a cash cows says Scott McCoy of the Southern Poverty Law Center

“Similar policies have contributed to massive jail expansion.”

Q:” Is there more incentive to incarcerate more people by building more jails?

“Well, there is, because there is a profit motive” says McCoy.

One fear being raised is that judges will sentence people to longer terms just to get them out of the local jail and into state prison.

Sponsor Rob Bradley downplayed the fear.

“That is a unconstitutional system that is devoid of justice” says Bradley

Public Defenders like the concept of keeping people closer to home, says Nancy Daniels, who advocates for FL Public Defenders Association, but have stopped short of endorsing the idea until more details are worked out.

“If there was a jail with a really good work release program, where people could keep their jobs is they have to do a state DOC sentence, there could be some major advantages” says Daniels.

Sheriffs say they have about 500 empty beds on any given day.

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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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