January 27, 2017

Federal judge blasts state's lawyer from bench in abortion case


OT_402078_KEEL_2_flgovIf federal judge Robert Hinkle plans to side with the state of Florida in an abortion lawsuit, he showed no signs of it in his courtroom Friday.

For nearly an hour, Hinkle asked hard questions and picked apart the state's defense in a case that aims to throw out provisions of an abortion law passed by the Legislature last year. At times, he looked incredulous, even frustrated with the state's lawyer, Blaine Winship.

It's the latest high-profile case that brought the state's lawyers into Hinkle's courtroom -- where he's frequently ruled against them. Last summer, he threw out provisions from the same abortion law now being challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

In this latest case, the ACLU sued the state's Agency for Health Care Administration and Attorney General Pam Bondi back on behalf of Orlando Rev. Bryan Fulwider and several organizations who counsel women considering abortions claiming a new state law violated their First Amendment rights to free speech.

The law, signed last March by Gov. Rick Scott, in part requires anyone who "provides advice or help to persons in obtaining abortions" register with AHCA, thus making their work known and, according to Hinkle and the ACLU, opening a path for prosecution of a decades-old law that requires they give a "full and detailed explanation of abortion" and its alternatives.

Fulwider says being forced to register with the state voilates his First Amendment right, in part because it costs $200 to register every other year. The law "attempts to encroach into pastoral counseling," he said, calling the state "Big Brother."

Hinkle seemed to agree.

"What they have to do right now is pay some money in order to speak," Hinkle said.

The state disagrees. AHCA has interpreted that the law to only applies to organizations who receive donations specifically earmarked for abortion counseling and that the registration fee doesn't constitute a restriction on speech.

It's not clear when Hinkle will rule -- or how -- but his comments on the bench gave some indication.

While the state's arguments insisted the law was not about targeting abortion-related organizations, Winship differentiated from other procedures saying that "there's not another life involved" in them.

"Aha," Hinkle said. "Now you're really saying we're doing this because abortion is different."

Photo: Sen. Kelli Stargel, R- Lakeland listens to former Sen. Nancy Detert, R- Venice, during a debate on an abortion bill. Detert voted against the bill. (Scott Keeler, Times)

December 28, 2016

PolitiFact Florida: No permit needed for driverless cars, Tampa Bay senator says

Driverless car 0401


Uber hit the road with self-driving cars in San Francisco in December, but California regulators quickly hit the brakes.

In Florida, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, saw an opening for the Sunshine state.

"Hey @Uber, unlike California we in Florida welcome driverless cars - no permit required. #OpenForBusiness #FlaPol," Brandes tweeted Dec. 22.

Brandes, who has been advocating for laws to allow driverless cars, is correct that Florida does not require a permit to operate or test a driverless car. But that doesn’t mean people should expect to hitch an automated ride any time soon.

Keep reading from PolitiFact Florida.

(Photo: Anthony Ruvalo checks out the driverless car, Plan B, being demonstrated and on display at the Miami-Dade Government Center lobby on March 31, 2016. Al Diaz/Miami Herald)

December 21, 2016

Uncertainty in Florida's death penalty law yields fewer executions, sentences



The lingering uncertainty over Florida’s death penalty sentencing procedures in the past year has made the state a microcosm of nationwide trends, according to a new report from a national nonprofit research organization focused on capital punishment.

The annual year-end assessment from the Death Penalty Information Center, released Wednesday, finds that death-penalty sentences, executions and public support for capital punishment all continued to decline nationwide in 2016.

Similar results were seen in Florida, where one public opinion poll earlier this year showed Floridians favoring life sentences over executions and where administration of the death penalty has been effectively on hold since January, when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Florida’s process for imposing death sentences.

“As a practical matter because of the unconstitutionality of the statute and the state Legislature’s failure to take appropriate precautions when it enacted a ‘fix’ in the statute, we ended up with the functional equivalent of no death penalty in Florida this year,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections

December 15, 2016

Florida elector Joe Negron calls anti-Trump fervor 'sour grapes'

Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, one of Florida's 29 presidential electors, said he has received several hundred messages from people who don't want him to vote for Donald Trump. But he says he'll cast his vote for Trump when the electors meet next Monday, Dec. 19, in the newly-remodeled state Senate chamber in Tallahassee.

"I read them. Most of them come from states won by Secretary Clinton," Negron said in a Times/Herald interview. "The common theme of the letters is, 'We're unhappy with the outcome of the election, so you should substitute your judgment for the judgment of the people.' For me, it's a simple case. In Florida, there's no dispute. President-elect Trump won Florida, so he's entitled to 29 electoral votes ... Donald Trump won fair and square."

Public demands that he try to block Trump from taking office are "sour grapes," Negron said. Full-page ads in the Tampa Bay Times and other newspapers have demanded that Negron and other electors oppose Trump because he lost the national popular vote. The ads were paid for by a Southern California Democrat, Daniel Brezenoff, who said protests are planned in various cities next Monday, including Tallahassee.

The electors' meeting will be held at 2 p.m. and will be chaired by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state's top elections official. Capitol police will be ready for anticipated protests at the Capitol on Monday.

Negron's Facebook page is sprinkled with comments from people who want him to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Facebook poster Rob DiBella warned Negron that "you will most certainly face recall/impeachment" if the senator supports Trump, who according to DiBella will violate the U.S. Constitution if he doesn't sell his business interests before he becomes president.

Negron, who as a lawmaker has voted on bills establishing Florida's presidential preference primary, also said he supports the state's winner-take-all system in which the candidate who wins Florida gets all 29 electoral votes, regardless of the closeness of the result, a system GOP legislators thought would help Floridians Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio -- not Trump.

"I don't have an issue," Negron said.


December 13, 2016

Abortion-rights groups sue state, say law violates free speech


OT_402078_KEEL_1_flgovAbortion-rights advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday sued the state over abortion restrictions the groups say would have a chilling effect on free speech.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Tallahassee, asks a judge to throw out part of a law requiring agencies that refer women to abortion providers to register with and pay a fee to the state. It was passed this spring by the Legislature as part of a broader abortion measure and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

Because of how the law is structured, the ACLU and others argue, the law would require any private person who gives advice to a woman considering an abortion to register with the state. As well, they say, these people would fall under an existing state law requiring them to inform the parents of minors who decide to have an abortion.

This, the lawsuit argues, would violate free speech rights of private citizens under the First Amendment.

"A woman considering an abortion may consult with any number of people in making her decision,” said Nancy Abudu, legal director of the ACLU of Florida said in a written statement. “This ill-conceived law criminalizes the intimate conversations a woman has with her support network. The law not only forces people to provide information they may not be qualified to provide, it clearly intends to bully and intimidate women’s trusted advisors with a vague and complicated bureaucratic process, under the threat of criminal charges."

The provisions go into effect Jan. 1.

Interim Secretary Justin Senior of the Agency for Health Care Administration and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi are named in the lawsuit. They were not immediately available for comment Tuesday morning.

Earlier this year, Planned Parenthood sued the state in federal court over other provisions in the same law. Judge Robert Hinkle, the same judge who will preside over this new lawsuit, blocked two provisions, which required the state to inspect patient records of as many as 35,000 women and would have eliminated all state spending at abortion clinics, including for non-abortion services like cancer screenings and HIV testing.

Photo: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times.

November 23, 2016

If Pam Bondi resigns, here's an early short list for attorney general

Attorney General Pam Bondi's absence from Tuesday's one-day organizational session of the Legislature is fueling more speculation that she's a short-timer in Tallahassee. A member of President-elect Donald Trump's transition team, she's seen as a likely pick for a White House job. Bondi's office ignored three requests Tuesday to disclose the whereabouts of the state's chief legal officer.

Bondi's widely-anticipated departure would give Gov. Rick Scott the power to appoint an attorney general through the 2018 election. If Scott wants to keep peace with his fellow Republicans, he will pick a caretaker, somebody who takes the job on one condition: not to run for a full four-year term in 2018. Scott has senatorial aspirations in 2018 and could make enemies if he's seen as taking sides in what at the moment looks like a crowded GOP primary.

Whoever gets chosen gets a two-year Cabinet gig, likely followed by a big-ticket job offer at any of the state's most prestigious law firms. So here are five names mentioned in speculation for the job:

* Pete Antonacci. A Scott favorite plucked from the Gray Robinson firm, he was the governor's top lawyer before being appointed as scott's hand-picked choice to run the South Florida Water Management District last year, a job he says he loves. He knows this territory well and was deputy attorney general for most of the 16-year tenure of former A.G. Bob Butterworth, a Democrat. Asked about his interest in the job, Antonacci told the Times/Herald: "That's not for me to say. It's the governor's decision."

* Rep. Jose Felix "Pepi" Diaz (left) PepDiaz. An outside-the-box name, a rising star in the House, a Miami land use lawyer and graduate of Columbia Law School, the Miami legislator would be the state's first Hispanic attorney general. His name and background would be seen as an asset on the statewide GOP ticket in two years.

* Tom Grady. Scott's good friend and next-door neighbor in Naples, a securities lawyer and former state House member, has been a past Scott pick for the state Board of Education. He briefly ran the Office of Financial Regulation and faced controversy over his travel while at the helm of Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

* Jesse Panuccio. Also a Scott favorite, he was the governor's counsel in his first term and ran the Department of Economic Opportunity, where he ran into some rough sledding with the Legislature before leaving last year for private practice at Foley & Lardner. He also is a Scott appointee to the Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission.

* Kent Perez. A steady hand and political survivor, he has been in high-level positions in and out of the A.G.'s office since 1994 under three bosses and currently serves as Bondi's general counsel and acting chief of staff. He could be expected to keep the ship on an even keel and has no aspirations to hold elective office.

Here's another scenario to ponder. Bondi could be appointed to a White House post that requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate, a process that could drag well into next year. Scott might consider Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who's rumored to be interested in running for the job in 2018 and could potentially be considered after serving for a full session in his current post.

November 01, 2016

Supreme Court hears arguments over 24-hour abortion waiting period


The fate of a controversial law that requires women see a doctor and wait 24 hours before having an abortion is now in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court.

Justices heard arguments Tuesday morning over whether to keep in place an injunction that has blocked the waiting period from being enforced for most of the last year and a half.

A Tallahassee circuit judge agreed to block the law while a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a Gainesville abortion clinic moves forward.

The Supreme Court won't yet rule on whether the law is constitutional, but because a lawsuit over constitutionality could take years, the justices' ruling could determine, for years to come, if the 24-hour waiting period goes into effect.

Still, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and the state argued in court over how the law impacts a guarantee of privacy in the Florida Constitution that courts have ruled protects women's right to have an abortion if they choose.

"Privacy infringement is apparent as a matter of law because the state is telling a woman that she cannot exercise a fundamental constitutional right for a 24-hour period," said Julia Kaye, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project.

Lawyers for the state argued that state lawmakers were justified in passing the law in 2015.

Society has an interest in people making important decisions after giving them proper consideration, said Denise Harle, the state's deputy solicitor general.

"The waiting period is not because it's a medical procedure," Harle said. "It's a waiting period because it's an irreversible, life-altering decision on the level of other things like marriage, divorce or giving up your child for adoption."

Read the full story.

October 24, 2016

South Florida a focus of Obama human-trafficking initiative



Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a White House meeting Monday of a high-level task force set up by President Barack Obama in 2012 to combat forced labor and prostitution.

Federal law enforcement agencies have initiated more than 6,000 human-trafficking cases and secured at least 4,000 convictions since Obama took office in January 2009.

"While more work is required to tackle the root causes and consequences of human trafficking, the United States continues to be a leader in the global movement to end modern slavery," the White House said in a statement.

Part of the Obama initiative is focused on Miami and New York, two national trafficking hubs.

The U.S. Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and Justice are collaborating to provide job and training services in those cities for victims of human trafficking.

More than 1,200 instances of human trafficking were reported in the Sunshine State through the Florida Abuse Line in fiscal year 2014-15.

South Florida is the third-most-active region for sex trafficking in the country, with minors often the victims, according to the Justice Department.

Before it was cancelled because of Hurricane Matthew, Attorney General Pam Bondi had scheduled the Florida Human Trafficking Summit for Oct. 10 in Orlando. Five-hundred law-enforcement officers, service providers, healthcare professionals, educators, legislators and community leaders had signed up to attend, along with trafficking victims.

Obama's task force gave a presidential anti-trafficking award to Students Opposing Slavery, a network of high school and college students who raise awareness about trafficking among youth. The University of Central Florida in Orlando has one of the most active chapters of the group.

"Leaders in our state are committed to making Florida a zero-tolerance state for human-trafficking," Bondi said.

In a recent case, the drug-overdose death of a 14-year-old girl in Orlando led police to break open a human-trafficking ring based there.

Jose Ignacio Santiago-Sotomayor, 22, and Avorice Jeno Holman, 19, were arrested and charged with first-degree murder, human trafficking of a child and procuring a minor for prostitution. Police said they and other members of the ring drugged girls in order to have sex with them.

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott declared January the Human Trafficking Awareness Month and signed four bills into law that stiffened penalties for human traffickers, established protections for past victims, and promoted efforts to help people recognize warning signs.

"It is unfathomable that this evil occurs in our state, but by expanding services and passing important legislation this year, we are helping to save and heal the lives of our state's most vulnerable," Scott said.

In July, police busted a human-trafficking ring in Seminole County with more than 20 victims, arresting Christian Pena Fernandez and Rachel Gonzalez.

Detectives said that Pena Fernandez ran a sophisticated organization in which he recruited and harbored women to provide sex. He ran ads seeking women on backpage.com, they said.

The couple used motels and hotels across Central Florida in their operation, detectives said.

Photo credit: Getty Images


October 19, 2016

Three groups accuse Florida of violating federal 'motor voter' law

Three voting rights groups on Wednesday put the state of Florida on notice that it may file a lawsuit for alleged violations of the federal "motor voter" law.

In a release, Project Vote, Demos and the League of Women Voters of Florida said they notified the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) that it is violating federal law by not offering online customers a chance to register to vote as required by federal law, and that DHSMV is not meeting its voter registration obligations regarding changes of address that are done in person, by mail and online. The state agency is under the control of Gov. Rick Scott and the three elected Cabinet members.

According to the League's release, federal law "requires an 'opt out' system, in which an individual who changes their address through DHSMV will automatically have their voter registration information updated unless they specifically decline the update. None of the DHSMV address change methods comply with this requirement." Unless the state is willing to meet with the League to work out a corrective plan, "the groups plan to initiate litigation," the League said.

The League's release did not explain why it waited until 20 days before a presidential election to take action. DHSMV did not respond to the Times/Herald's request for comment Wednesday. "We are reviewing," an agency spokesman said.

October 14, 2016

Advocates, officials react to Supreme Court's death penalty ruling

@MichaelAuslen and @MaryEllenKlas

Friday morning, the Florida Supreme Court struck down the state's death penalty sentencing law, declaring that all death sentences should be decided by a unanimous jury.

"I am profoundly disappointed by today’s Florida Supreme Court opinion that found a component of our death penalty law unconstitutional. ... Make no mistake, those impacted most by this miscarriage of justice are the families as they watch the perpetrators of some of the most heinous and vicious murders and tortures continue to live the days their loved one were denied," said Florida House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran in a statement. "This decision is indicative of a Court that comes to a conclusion, then seeks a judicial pathway, however tortured, to achieve its desired result.  That is antithetical to the rule of law and dangerous for our state."

Spokespeople for Gov. Rick Scott Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and President-designate Joe Negron said they were reviewing the court's ruling.

So did Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. "We are reviewing the Florida Supreme Court ruling, but in the meantime Florida juries must make unanimous decisions in capital cases as to the appropriateness of the death penalty," said spokesman Whitney Ray in a statement.

Here's how advocates and elected officials responded in the hours following the court's ruling:

"It was a pretty simple question. We either found a compromise or nothing happened and doing nothing was not a reasonable outcome," said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who also said he was not surprised by the court's ruling. “If we had done nothing then there would not have been a law that the Supreme Court of Florida could pass judgment on. Now we have direction and so we needed to act at the past session in order to end the delays in the death penalty system.”

"I supported unanimous juries in the past and I think it’s probably the right decision," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "This is just really a trend of what supreme courts have been doing around the country on this issue."

"We enforce the laws, the Legislature writes the laws and the Supreme Court interprets the laws," said Buddy Jacobs, general counsel of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which opposed unanimous juries. "So we will be talking and meeting on Monday to try to come up with some sort of road map of where we go from here based on this opinion."

"For years, we have warned the Florida legislature that unless they rewrote our state’s broken death penalty, the courts would take the issue out of their hands," saidHoward Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, in a statement. "Just as we warned the Florida Legislature that they would, the Florida Supreme Court has inserted some much-needed fairness in our death penalty process by declaring that anything short of a fully unanimous jury is unconstitutional."

“Today’s opinions released by the Florida Supreme Court continue to reveal a broken, mistake-prone death penalty system that fails victims’ families, the innocent, and taxpayers. It is time to end the use of Florida’s failed death penalty government program," said Mark Elliott, executive director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, in a statement. "For more than a decade, prosecutors have known full well that Florida’s death sentencing scheme was seriously flawed and could be unconstitutional, yet they downplayed concerns and advised against reforms. Victims’ families were dragged through long, repetitive, and painful procedures, record numbers of innocent people were sentenced to death, and Florida taxpayers paid the enormous costs."

"Florida finally joins the rest of the states in requiring what everyone has known for a long time -- that at least, the imposition of the death penalty requires a unanimous verdict," said Miami defense lawyer Philip Reizenstein, who handles death cases. "What remains is for Florida to join the rest of the civilized world and end the death penalty."

“The Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that jury recommendations for the death penalty must be unanimous is a long overdue recognition of the state’s fatally flawed capital punishment regime," said Professor Mary Anne Franks of the University of Miami School of Law in a statement circulated by the Fair Punishment Project. "The prosecutors who relentlessly pursued death sentences despite being repeatedly placed on notice that the state’s death penalty regime was constitutionally defective should be held accountable for the emotional and financial costs they have imposed on victims’ families and on taxpayers.”

We'll keep updating as reactions come in.

With reporting by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Laura Morel and Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle.