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Lawmakers Want to Update Laws for “Terroristic Threats”

January 29th, 2016 by flanews

Social media threats against events or schools can send people into a panic and force lockdowns…all because of a prank.  As Matt Galka tells us, lawmakers want to send a strong message that they’re not finding the “jokes” funny.

Social media posts threatening gun violence at multiple high schools around Florida’s Capitol earlier this week led to panic, low attendance, and extra security from law enforcement.

The threats appear to be a hoax. Now legislators say Florida laws on threats need to be updated.

“If you call in a bomb threat today to a school, that is a felony. If you threaten to go shoot the school up, that is a misdemeanor,” said Trilby Republican Sen. Wilton Simpson.

 

Simpson sponsors a bill that would clarify the threat laws.

Anyone caught making a verbal threat or writing one on social media could be hit with a felony

Local law enforcement is backing the bill. The Pasco County sheriff’s office cited a similar recent prank threat as a reason why there needs to be uniform penalties for bomb threats and shooting ones.

“Putting online that you’re going to shoot up the school, that could be a misdemeanor if it effected school function. This didn’t effect school function but it sure effected law enforcement function,” said PCSO Cpt. James Mallo.

But Senator Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) worries that saying a juvenile made terroristic threats could ruin the rest of their life.

“I think we just have to be careful when we’re escalating penalties for juveniles who may have done something dumb, but aren’t really a threat to society. I’m not sure I want to label a high school student a terrorist,” he said.

People could face up to 15 years behind bars and pay up to $10,000 dollars under the bill. But a judge could use discretion and shave off some prison time or potentially put a juvenile into a diversion program.

The bill unanimously cleared both a House and a Senate committee this week.

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Medical Marijuana Will be on the Ballot

January 28th, 2016 by flanews

Floridians will be voting for a president…and marijuana policy this year. As Matt Galka tells us, a medical marijuana ballot initiative is back, and state lawmakers are weighing in.

Marijuana advocates came within just about 2 percent of the vote in 2014 for a ballot initiative that would have legalized medical marijuana.

Two years later…Florida voters will once again decide the fate of medical cannabis in the state.  A ballot initiative surpassed the number of signatures needed and will be on the November ticket.

Representative Matt Gaetz helped pass a limited medical marijuana law in 2014. He says a constitutional amendment ties lawmakers hands.

“Part of the problem with putting cannabis policy in the constitution is that as the science evolves, we become constrained in making sure that the application of that cannabis is efficient and effective as possible,” he said.

Senator Rob Bradley also helped craft the same limited bill.  He believes it gives a good framework incase the amendment passes this time around.

“We’ve been dealing with it since 2014, there’s bills running this year that put us in a position that, if the time comes a constitutional amendment passes, Florida is ready,” he said.

Marijauna advocates in the state legislature feel it was a missed opportunity.

Senator Jeff Clemens has been trying to legalize medical marijuana since 2011.  He’s disappointed lawmakers couldn’t get out in front of the issue.

“We’re requiring the public to do what we couldn’t do up here and still can’t do,” said Clemens.

The ballot initiative would allow doctors to prescribe medical marijuana to patients with illneses like HIV/AIDs, epilepsy and cancer.

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January 28th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

 

Legislation that would allow the open carry of holstered hand guns in Florida cleared it’s last House Committee today in the state Capitol and is ready for a vote by the full House. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, open carry is creating dissension between different law enforcement groups.

Joel Smith was pulled over in Citrus County in January 2013.

“Your tag is Expired” the officer told him.

When he reached into the car, the officer saw Smith was carrying a gun.

“Put your hands right there or I’ll shoot you in the  **** back.”

Smith was arrested and charged with openly carrying a weapon, even though he had a concealed weapons permit. Lawmakers changed the law to say that a brief exposure was okay, but open carry advocates told a House Committee that concealed carry permit holders are still being harassed by police. Sponsor Matt Gaetz (R-Niceville) agreed to amend his legisation.

“This allows for the open carry of hand guns only” Gaetz told the Committee.

The debate pitted Police Chiefs, who support open carry

“This was put before our full board of directors” said Amy Mercer, the associations executive Director.

Against the Sheriffs Assn. who do not. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Galtieri spoke for the Association.

“the holster requirement does not require a security or retention holster” he explained as one of the reason for not supporting the legislation. That prompted rep. Matt Hudson to ask “How can one group of law enforcement officers say it will be a great crime prevention tool,, and one group of law enforcement officers say absolutely not?”

he didn’t get an answer.

Attempts to weaken the legislation but still keep people like Joel Smith from being arrested failed.

Open Carry was overwhelmingly approved with most Democrats voting no. Rep. Jared Moskowitz says open carry should only be open to American citizens.

“the San Bernardino shooter, both of them, could have applied for a concealed weapons permit and could have openly carried” said Moskowitz.

Under the legislation police who stop someone and violated their second amendment rights over open carry could face fines of up to five thousand dollars.

Open Carry’s next stop is the full House, where passage is expected. But the Florida Senate may be a roadblock.

The problem for police is that the word :”briefly” when it comes to the inadvertent showing of a concealed weapon is not defined in the law, which leaves officers to decide what’s brief and what isn’t.

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Pastor Protection Vote Delayed

January 28th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

Since the legalization of gay marriage, Florida pastors and others have signed thousands of petitions seeking protection under the law from having to perform marriages with which they don’t agree. The legislation was scheduled for a vote today, but time ran out. Still sponsor Scott Plakon says the legislation is needed to protect clergy when they follow their conscience.

“This  is an extra layer of protection under Florida law, I guess you would call it to give pastors and other religious practitioners comfort that they can go about what they do without worrying about being persecuted for that, or even criminally charged, or civilly”says Plakon.

The legislation is expected to get a vote next week.

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Alternative Testing Gets Senate Support

January 27th, 2016 by flanews

The Florida Standards Assessments tests got off to a rocky start and still face plenty of criticism. As Matt Galka tells us, one lawmaker wants to use national tests in their place.

There wasn’t much of a honeymoon phase for the Florida standards assessments. A rocky start filled with technology glitches combined with calls to reduce the amount of testing didn’t win many people over. Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) wants an alternative.

Gaetz proposed allowing schools to say goodbye to the FSA in favor of national tests like the SAT or ACT.

“We’d have less time testing, more time teaching, more validated assessment, nationally respected tests, and a way, frankly, for students to be able to use those results for college and career readiness that I think is advantageous,” he said.

Anti-testing critics weren’t satisfied. The Florida Citizens alliance said the proposal doesn’t fix the main problems facing students.

“In our view, this bill just puts a new caboose on the same runaway freight train called common core and its high stakes testing and its curriculum,” said Keith Flaugh.

Gaetz said he still wanted to ensure accountability.

“If you want to repeal the FSA, not your bill. If you don’t like tests that have consequences, measurements that have results. This is not your bill I’m not your sponsor,” said Gaetz.

The bill cleared its first senate committee unanimously.

Gaetz says he’s talked to colleagues in the Florida House about filing a bill, but nothing was filed before session began.

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Fantasy Sports Not a Sure Bet but better then 50/50

January 27th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

While other states are declaring fantasy sports betting illegal, Florida is moving to regulate the games, and as Mike Vasilinda tells us, one of the reasons is it’s popularity.

“75 million a week” is how one TV commercial describes the winnings for a fantasy sports website.

Nevada has said no to fantasy sports. New York also thinks the games are illegal. Florida is going the other way. Sponsor Joe Negron (R-Stuart)  wants regulation, not elimination.

“If we have essentially hundreds of millions of dollars being paid by Floridians to participate in contests, we want to make sure they are done properly” says Negron.

Operators would pay a five hundred thousand dollar registration fee; Then  A hundred thousand to renew their licenses every year. They must also post a million dollar bond.

The legislation carries a five thousand dollar fine for violations but no criminal penalties. That bothered competitors. Like Automated Wagering Lobbyist Marc Dunbar.

“So It would make it the only gambling activity that has no criminal penalties what so ever” Dunbar told the Senate committee.

Senators have been swamped with email from players who want more..not less.

Sen. Anitre Flores (R-Miami) says it is dinner table conversation for many.)

“Real people, real constituents have emailed, called, texted me” Flores told the Committee,

In the end, the sponsor says it wold be impractical to make the games illegal.

“But I don’t think any one wants to criminalize an activity that three million law abiding Floridians are engaged in” says Negron.

The legalization of fantasy sports still isn’t a sure bet, in part, because most gaming interests oppose it.

Chairman Rob Bradley was one of two no votes.

“So I would like to see some courts enter some ruling after hearing evidence” Bradley said afterward.

The sponsor is in line to be the next Senate President, which gives the fantasy betting  better than a 50/50 chance of being legitimized.

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A Constitutional Gaming Amendment Could be in the Offering

January 27th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee spent an hour today talking about the Seminole Compact. The room was packed with some of the most powerful lobbyists in the state. No vote was taken, and its still not certain lawmakers will take up a bill. But if they do, State Senator Joe Abruzzo plans to offer a Constitutional amendment that would legalize slots and banked card games at parimutuel facilities statewide and use the money to reduce property taxes. .

“My plan is for the revenue of these additional gaming to go toward tp drastically reducing and in some cases eliminating property taxes. I want that question to go before voters. I want that go in front of voters statewide. and i want it to local referendums to be passed in this communities” says Abruzzo.

Abruzzo’s plan would relieve the Seminole tribe from any payments to the state, and before gambling could occur in any one county, a second vote of local voters would have to approve.

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Cash for Families of Dozier Dead Clears Two Committees

January 26th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

Two legislative committees voted today to set aside a half million dollars to help pay the burial expenses for remains found at then defunct Dozier School for Boys. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, 51 bodies have been recovered but the identity of many remains a mystery.

The Dozier School for Boys had a checkered 111 year history. State Sen. Arthenia Joyner knew kids who were sent their as a child, and later taught high school students who did time at Dozier.

“So they personally related to me what happened to them there” Joyner told a legislative committee.

USF Researchers discovered 51 remains. 7 have been positively identified and the researchers believe they know the identity of 14 others.

Dale Landry, an NAACP executive, says most of the families of the deceased can’t afford burial expenses.

“They’re actually having to go out and do fundraisers, and they’re asking for people to make donations” says Landry.

Now Joyner is pushing legislation that would give each family seventy five hundred dollars to rebury the remains. She has the support of former Governor Bob Martinez, who changed leadership at the school in the 1980s.

“These youngsters have been in a potter’s field basically all this time, without markers or identification” said Martinez in one of his first legislative appearances in decades.

The legislation does nothing to decide what happens to the property next, but it does set up a task force that will help design a memorial.”

House Sponsor Ed Narain says the legislation is a step toward saying we’re sorry.

“There’s gonna be people whoa re unfortunately, never going to be satisfied, given the circumstances, but I think this is a step in the right direction to making things right.”

The money for burial would have to be claimed no later than the end of 2017.

A study published last week by the University of South Florida found that most of the deaths were caused by illnesses, but others were found to have been ben shot or beaten.

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Public Records Fee Bill Advances

January 26th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

For the second day in a row, a legislative committee has approved a bill that advocates say would make it harder for the public to get records from government. The legislation changes the word shall to may when it comes to the award of legal fees when citizens file suit to get records,. Sponsor Rene Garcia says his legislation is in response to abuses by some law firms.

“What’s happening is that attorneys, not saying all attorneys, but unscrupulous attorneys are, after this public records requests are submitted to the cities, are filing suit immediately after this requests are made” says Garcia.

Public records advocates say the law will make it difficult for average citizens to hire an attorney because of the costs involved. Stew Liker, The publisher of the Columbia County Observer in Lake City sued a local hospital board over a record and won, but incurred three hundred thousand dollars in legal fees.

“The awarding of legal fees by the court is mandatory if a public agency is found in violation of the law, Its really simple, ,all they have to do is abide by the law” says Liker.

The proposed legislation also provides for a five day notice before a suit is filed.

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Bill Aims to Prevent Another Rape Kit Backlog

January 26th, 2016 by flanews

More than 13,000 rape kits across the state sit untested, creating an alarming backlog and calls from elected officials to solve the problem. As Matt Galka tells us, lawmakers trying to tackle the issue say it starts with testing new kits in a timely manner.

 

Thousands of rape kits should be tested in Florida according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.  But a backlog in testing is potentially keeping criminals on the streets. Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Ft. Myers) says she wants to prevent that in the future.

“This is intended to make sure that, going forward, all kits that are collected are tested and submitted in a timely manner and tested in a timely manner,” she said.

Her bill cleared the Senate Criminal Justice committee Monday.  It requires law enforcement to submit rape kits within 21 days of examination.

“I just thank you for the opportunity to move this bill forward and to send a very strong message to victims that the evidence that will bring their victimizers to justice matters,” she said to the committee.

Advocates say the bill is necessary in order to prevent another backlog from happening.

Jennifer Dritt on the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence says the current backlog and stopping a new one are two separate issues – but they’re connected

“You can’t just process the backlog you currently have you have to ensure that it doesn’t happen going forward,” she said.

How much money lawmakers put in the budget will ultimately determine how many of the kits can be analyzed

“You’ve seen chair Negron be very aggressive to make sure that we have the funding that we need to clear that backlog and it’s done in a much shorter timeline,” said Sen. Benacquisto.

The kits cost between $1,000 and $1,500 dollars to be tested…and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement estimates it could take up to eight years to complete.  A timeline that some lawmakers have called unacceptable.

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Red Light Report

January 22nd, 2016 by flanews

A new report casts more doubt about the effectiveness of Red Light Cameras in Florida. As Matt Galka tells us, lawmakers are again pushing to eliminate the program.

The state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles report on red light cameras from 2014 to 2015 isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

276 cameras at intersections across the stat were analyzed. The results – crashes were up overall by 14 percent.

State Senator Jeff Brandes wants a statewide ban.

“We’re not seeing the safety benefits for red light cameras. I believe red light cameras are about revenue, they’re being misused by cities to increase their revenue, they’re essentially a backdoor tax increase,” said Sen. Brandes (R-St. Petersburg).

Brandes sponsors senate legislation for a repeal of the state’s red light camera law. The House version passed its first committee Thursday.

Some local governments have already opted to remove them. They were taken down in Florida’s capital city in September.

But the Florida league of cities says that a statewide ban isn’t the right move. League lobbyist Casey Cook says the cameras are still useful for cities.

“We believe that red light cameras are an important public safety tool, every city in Florida is different,” said Cook.

“I want cities to take the money that they’re getting from red light cameras and put it in intersection safety. Make their intersections safer, don’t fund other government priorities with it, focus on the safety,” said Brandes.

Rear end crashes, crashes causing serious injuries, and crashes involving bikes all went up according to the report. The report noted that crashes are up overall across the state.

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Cancer Fighting Group Asks for Higher Cigarette Tax

January 22nd, 2016 by flanews

More than 100 thousand Floridians are estimated to be diagnosed with cancer in just this coming year. As Matt Galka tells us, advocates fighting the disease say we can cut into those rates if the state charges more for cigarettes.

Fighting cancer is personal for Beth-Ann Lesnikoski.

“I have 17 family members who have been effected by cancer. And all of these people have lives, have families who love them and we do well against breast cancer, we don’t do very well against things like lung cancer,” she said.

Lesnikoski took her fight against the disease to Florida’s Capitol Thursday. Along with about 100 other survivors and patients, they called on the legislature to raise taxes on cigarettes as they chanted “pass the buck.”

An estimated 43 thousand people in the state will die this year from some form of cancer.  Representative Richard Stark is sponsoring a bill that would add another dollar surcharge to a pack of smokes.

“Maybe they won’t do a dollar a pack, maybe they’ll do 50 cents a pack, but do something to raise cigarette awareness, we’re trying to get more and more people to quit,” said Rep. Stark (D-Weston).

There’s currently a $1.34 tax that comes along with buying a pack of cigarettes in the state.

The centers for disease control says the extra tax on the nearly $3 million smokers in the state could contribute $500 million more bucks for Florida. House Finance and Tax committee chair Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar) is hesitant.

“Florida has one of the lowest youth smoking rates in the country, and we should be very proud of that. Rigth now, Florida’s economy is growing, and this is not the time to raise taxes on the middle class or anyone else,” said Rep. Gaetz.

Data from other states indicates that a higher price could reduce the amount of adult smokers by nearly 100 thousand. The legislature last increased the tobacco tax in 2009.

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Final Report on Dozier Leaves Unanswered Questions

January 21st, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

 

The final report on 51 graves found at the now defunct Dozier School for Boys in the Panhandle Town of Marianna was presented to the Governor and Cabinet today. As Mike Vasilinda tells us, the report leaves as many questions as it answered.

The Dozier excavation found the remains of 51 boys. 7 have been identified, 14 more are called presumptive. That means the possible ID is based on records, not scientific evidence. There’s also a composite of two of the 31 whose identity is still unknown.

USF Anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle presented the report to the Governor and Cabinet.

“What we did is follow all leads that we could find, From witnesses, historic references, people who live in the community” the researched told the Cabinet.

A group of 230 former inmates known as the White House Boys, named for the concrete block building where beatings took place  says there are more bodies, and they are willing to help. Former inmate Charles Fudge says he walked by a grave on the white side of the compound everyday.

“There is a grave yard there that has more than 30 graves, and I ask that this does not stop” says Fudge.

Researchers say it’s impossible to rule out more bodies. But they say they did everything they could to find them.”

“Every information that we had, we looked in those areas, and haven’t found any additional burials” says Kimmerle.

Legislation moving through the Capitol would provide cash for families to bury the dead.

One of the biggest remaining questions is what happens to the remains of those boys who are unidentified.

And those who lived to tell their stories say the memories of Dozier will always haunt them. Bill Price was sent to Dozier for running away, and ran away again.

“I’m very lucky. I ran away twice. boys that were found in the woods were shot” says the Tampa man.

There is also the question of how to memorialize what happened at Dozier and what to do with the expansive property.

The pending legislation would provide up to five thousand dollar for each family who’s loved one has been identified at Dozier.

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Tougher D.U.I. Penalties

January 20th, 2016 by flanews

Driving Under the Influence could be getting more costly under a new bill in the Capitol. As Matt Galka tells us, a new proposal could make people think twice about refusing a breathalyzer.

More than 80 percent of Floridians arrested for Driving under the influence refuse breath tests according to a national highway traffic safety study.

Senator David Simmons bill aims to discourage that.  His proposal would hit drivers with a minimum 500 dollar fine and six months of probation on top of an already suspended license for refusing the test. It was set to go before a Senate committee, but that was put on hold temporarily.

A DUI attorney we spoke to said that if you’re pulled over, you have every right to refuse the breathalyzer test. He questioned whether or not the bill was even constitutional.

Attorney Fred Conrad says people busted for DUI can’t even speak to a lawyer before their license is suspended…and the bill would take away the only choice they have.

“It just seems to fly in the face of the spirit of the 4th amendment, that you can be pulled over and be forced to give evidence against yourself,” said Conrad.

The bill also could make it a misdemeanor for someone to refuse a breath test if they’re arrested again.

“The solution should be requiring that the individual take the test to determine if they have an alcohol or drug dependency and try to cure and solve that problem,” said Sen. Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs).

The bil. sponsor says he expects the bill will be taken up again within the next week.

A repeat offender would be required to have a breathalyzer device installed in their vehicles and would need to pass in order to drive their car under the bill.

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Public Records Law Suits Under Attack

January 20th, 2016 by Mike Vasilinda

State lawmakers moved forward today with a plan to make it harder to win attorneys fees if citizens have to sue to get public records. But as Mike Vasilinda tells us, public records advocates say lawmakers are using a sledge hammer to fix a minor abuse.

A handful of questionable law firms appear to be milking Florida’s cities and counties with lawsuits over hundreds of public record requests. Robert Granger,Vice Mayor of GulfStream, population 1000 in Palm Beach County says it spent a million dollars responding last year.

“So you might get 25 one day. 25 the next day. A coupe days off, 50. And they pile up” he told the committee.

The legislative response. Make it harder to win legal fees. Open Government advocates like rich templin of the Sunshine Coalition say its like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

“We seem to be focused on the group of bad actors at the expense of all of the thousands of law abiding Floridians who currently enjoy protections under Florida’s Sunshine laws” says Templin.

The legislation’s biggest change is just one word…saying a judge may rather than shall order governments to pay legal fees when they are found guilty of violating the law.

Citizens say that will make getting records near impossible. Barbara Lemley made the trip from Lake City to testify.

“To avoid payment of attorneys fees, a government agency needs only comply with the law. Produce the records” she told lawmakers.

While approved unanimously, some members have grave reservations.

The bill also provides than anyone planning a lawsuit give at least five days notice so the government can turn over the records. Rep David Santiago of Deltona asked if that made sense.

“Wouldn’t that provide the protections the cities and counties would need to do the right thing?”

Lawmakers say judges have little discretion to decide if a government has acted in good faith.

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