February 02, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Both the House and Senate are in session today, and they'll have plenty of old and familiar faces on hand as their special guests for the morning. Here's what we're watching:

* Current and former lawmakers will come together in each chamber, as part of a weeklong legislative reunion in Tallahassee. The House is set to honor former members during a special "reunion" session from 9:15-10 a.m., and then the Senate plans to do the same from 11 a.m. to noon, after an hour of regular floor work.
 
* The House convenes again for its regular session at 4 p.m. Daily business is set to include debate on sanctuary cities, revisions to the state's 10-20-Life law and two high-profile guns bills -- open carry and campus carry.
 
* The House Criminal Justice Subcommittee will consider a proposal to address Florida's death penalty procedures in the wake of the Hurst v. Florida U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month. A Senate panel held a similar hearing last week. Along that same vein, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning on whether Hurst applies to the case of death-row inmate Michael Lambrix, who has been denied a stay for his execution set for Feb. 11.
 
* The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will debate two controversial ideas: Making both the commissioner of education and the secretary of state elected positions.
 
* A contingent of current and former NFL players will join Democratic lawmakers for a press conference urging the Legislature to sign off on a settlement deal reached in the wrongful death suit of Florida State University freshman linebacker Devaughn Darling. Darling collapsed and died in 2001 while participating in a series of intense conditioning drills at FSU.

January 29, 2016

Florida House plans to take up open-carry, campus-carry gun bills next week

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House is making quick work of a proposal to allow people with concealed weapons permits to openly carry handguns in Florida.

The legislation cleared its final committee in a contentious hearing on Thursday, and the full chamber plans to debate it during the House's next session scheduled for Tuesday.

HB 163 is on the daily calendar, as is a similarly controversial bill that would let concealed weapons permit-holders carry concealed on the state's 40 public college and university campuses. 

Any floor vote on the guns-on-campus bill -- HB 4001 -- is likely to be mostly political, though, because the proposal has stalled in the Senate, all-but-killing its chances at becoming law this year.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said last week he won't schedule a hearing on it. Proponents are hoping to use some legislative maneuvering to get around his decision, but Senate leadership said that wouldn't be well-received.

The open carry bill, meanwhile, is likely to pass the Republican-dominated House, but could face similar jeopardy in the Senate. Diaz de la Portilla said earlier this month he was willing to have a hearing on it because of an amendment proposed by the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Democrats in the House tried to push that amendment Thursday but were shot down by a Republican majority. The change would have gutted the bill, stripping away the ability to openly carry and instead only shoring up protections for gun owners who accidentally display concealed weapons -- which the National Rifle Association said was its primary desire for the bill.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- sponsor of the Senate open carry bill -- said Thursday he won't support that amendment.

And it seems that Diaz de la Portilla could be reconsidering his decision to hear the bill at all. The Naples Daily News reported that Diaz de la Portilla might block the bill if it doesn't include the sheriffs association's amendment. Efforts to reach Diaz de la Portilla on Friday were unsuccessful, so the Herald/Times cannot independently confirm that report.

Also on the House's debate calendar Tuesday: Legislation that would make it a misdemeanor crime to fire a gun outdoors recreationally, including for target shooting, in a primarily residential area. It's aimed at prohibiting backyard gun ranges in densely populated areas.

January 28, 2016

Florida Senate approves changes to "stand your ground" law

@ByKristenMClark

By a 24-12 vote, the Florida Senate on Thursday approved changes to the state's "stand your ground" law -- which are endorsed by the National Rifle Association but which opponents argue would "stack the deck against justice for the dead," especially if the victim is a racial minority.

The legislation shifts the burden of proof in a pre-trial hearing from defendants to prosecutors, requiring state attorneys to prove "by clear and convincing evidence" why a defendant could not claim "stand your ground" in self-defense cases.

Its prospects at becoming law are unknown, because a House version -- which required the demonstration of a higher burden of proof from prosecutors -- unexpectedly stalled in November in committee, a rare defeat for a priority of the NRA.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island -- sponsor of SB 344 -- said again Thursday he wants for House leadership to take up his bill directly on the House floor. It's unclear whether House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, intends to exercise that option.

Crisafulli spokesman Michael Williams told the Herald/Times that “the House will take up the bill for consideration when it comes over from the Senate,” but it hasn’t been decided whether it will be brought immediately to the floor for a vote or referred to committees.

Bradley said he “anticipates” a floor vote in the House.

"I've gotten general indications that's where it's headed," he said. "I'm confident there's a majority of House members who would agree with the majority of the Senate that this is the right public policy for the state of Florida."

Bradley sought the changes to "stand your ground" in light of a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that he has argued "overreached" the court's powers.

In the case known as Bretherick v. Florida, five of seven justices ruled defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity, but Bradley contends the justices "misinterpreted legislative intent" of the decade-old law.

Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no obligation to retreat or flee.

"We're getting it right today," Bradley said on the Senate floor, adding that "the state should have the burden of proof in criminal prosecution from beginning to end."

Sen. Gwen Margolis, of Miami, was the only Democrat to join the chamber's Republican majority in passing the bill. She changed her vote afterward, but the official record reflects the result as 24-12 with her as a “yes” vote.

Prior to the floor vote, several Democratic senators invoked the names of high-profile victims -- including Trayvon Martin -- in expressing their opposition to "stand your ground" and Bradley's proposed changes, but Republicans said Trayvon's case had nothing to do with the law.

Trayvon, a 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford four years ago. Zimmerman was later acquitted.

Shifting the burden of proof in self-defense cases would require prosecutors to "somehow prove a negative; that there was no threat, no reason to be fearful," Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said.

"In these cases, you only have one person’s side of the story; it's the last man standing," Thompson said. "Trayvon couldn’t tell his side of the story because he was dead. So we only have the version that was presented by the individual who hunted him down, who tracked him, who engaged him in an altercation."

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said the enforcement of “stand your ground” has already proven to have wide disparities depending on the race of the victim, and this legislation could further hurt the chances for minority victims to get justice.

She cited statistics from the American Bar Association that she said show a white shooter of a black victim is 350 percent more likely to be found justified in use of deadly force than if the victim was white.

Bradley said, "it's simply incorrect to suggest this bill would result in otherwise guilty individuals going free."

He described his measure as "procedural" and said if prosecutors have sufficient evidence to prove a case before a jury at trial, they should have no problem convincing a judge in a preliminary hearing.

But Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the hearing happens when "the case is still ripe; they haven't even got all the evidence in."

"You’re getting the immunity, the least you can do is put on some evidence of it," he said.

He also criticized Bradley for citing the dissent of Justices Charles T. Canady and Ricky Polston as part of his rationale for seeking to change the law.

"When I was in law school, the dissent was what we called: 'What the law is not,' " Smith said.

After lengthy, lively debate, open-carry proposal heads to full Florida House

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@ByKristenMClark

Despite discord among the state’s law enforcement officers and passionate efforts to derail it, a National Rifle Association-backed measure to allow nearly 1.5 million people to openly carry guns in Florida is ready for consideration by the full state House.

A compromise version of HB 163 -- by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- easily passed the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The 12-4 vote came after 2-1/2 hours of debate that included mentions of terrorism, God and the Wild West, and four unsuccessful amendments aimed at scaling back the drastic shift in public policy.

Tallahassee Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda was the only Democrat to side with Republicans in supporting the measure.

If it becomes law, concealed-weapons permit-holders could carry handguns openly wherever they're allowed to carry concealed. Private businesses -- ranging from grocery stores and bars to Disney World -- would be able to decide whether people can carry guns, but no public place -- such as a public hospital -- could ban them, unless guns are banned already under state law.

The Senate version -- SB 300, sponsored by Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- awaits consideration before that chamber's Judiciary Committee, its second of three committee stops. Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, has said he'll give it a hearing.

Matt Gaetz's measure is likely to earn favor in the full House, where 81 of the 120 members are Republicans, but Democrats said they plan to continue fighting.

Republicans and gun-rights supporters heralded the proposal on Thursday as one that fortifies constitutional rights, or what Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, called a "God-given right to openly carry weapons."

But Democrats and gun-control advocates blast the measure because they fear it would jeopardize law enforcement officers' safety as well as public safety. They say it could harm Florida's "family friendly" tourism industry, and some also worry about the ready ability terrorists could have to openly carry handguns.

Continue reading "After lengthy, lively debate, open-carry proposal heads to full Florida House" »

Open-carry bill up for final hearing in Florida House this morning

@ByKristenMClark

A controversial proposal -- backed by the National Rifle Association and gun-rights advocates -- that would allow more than 1.4 million people in Florida to openly carry guns goes before its third and final House committee this morning.

Expect lively debate by the House Judiciary Committee over the proposal from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. At least two divergent amendments have been proposed; others might have been filed since last night, but are not publicly available yet.

Gaetz is offering a compromise to his bill, in line with what the Florida Police Chiefs Association has requested. His amendment would allow openly carried guns to be loaded or unloaded, but they'd have to be holstered.

Also, the language removes restrictions on judges and law enforcement that his original bill included, which would have limited how police investigated people openly carrying and how judges decided cases. Gone is the "strict scrutiny" mandate on judges and inserted is a clarification that the proposed law "is not intended to restrict a law enforcement officer’s ability or authority to conduct investigations."

However, police officers would remain vulnerable to lawsuits if someone accuses the officer of violating their right to bear arms, a penalty that Gaetz's bill still includes.

Meanwhile, Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, has filed an amendment that would gut the bill and replace it with provisions sought by the Florida Sheriffs Association. General open carry wouldn't be allowed. The changes aim to target only what the NRA has said is its primary concern: the prosecution of people who accidentally display concealed weapons.

But NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said this morning that solution is off the table. She said lawmakers aimed to resolve that issue in 2011 but it didn't work. She said NRA attorneys believe the only fix is to allow open carry in general.

She added: "We're ready to fight."

The proposed law would still only apply to people who have concealed weapons permits in Florida.

The committee hearing starts at 9. Stay tuned to see what happens.

January 21, 2016

"Stand your ground" law changes inch toward full Senate vote

@ByKristenMClark

Senators debated on Thursday proposed changes to Florida's "stand your ground" law, clearing the way for a floor vote.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island -- the sponsor of SB 344 -- spent 20 minutes answering questions posed mostly by Democratic senators who probed the need for and implications of the bill.

Bradley's legislation would shift the burden of proof in a pre-trial hearing from defendants to prosecutors, requiring state attorneys to prove "by clear and convincing evidence" why a defendant could not claim "stand your ground" in self-defense cases.

He said the legislation is in reaction to a Florida Supreme Court last summer. Justices stated that defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity, but Bradley contends the justices "misinterpreted legislative intent" of the decade-old law.

"This bill brings full measure to what was done in 2005 and finishes the job and fairly and accuracy reflects what a true immunity hearing should be -- and that’s a hearing with the burden being on the state," Bradley said during Thursday's debate on the Senate floor.

Democratic Sen. Chris Smith, D- Fort Lauderdale, questioned the intent of the change, which has been described as a strengthening of the "stand your ground" law.

"This bill and this law is a way of avoiding trial," Smith said. "This is a way of not even going to a trial or going to a jury. This is a away of getting rid of it in front of a judge without a person’s peers looking at (it)."

Senators moved the bill to third reading, so it now needs to be scheduled on the calendar for a vote. It isn't slotted for the floor calendar for the next day of session, Jan. 28.

The House companion -- which required the demonstration of a higher burden of proof from prosecutors -- stalled in November in committee. Bradley said previously he wants his bill to pass out of the Senate and for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, to then take it up under messages directly on the House floor.

Diaz de la Portilla declares campus-carry bill dead for the session

DWS guns@MaryEllenKlas and @MichaelAuslen

The Senate chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmed Thursday that the controversial bill, SB 68, to allow guns on college campuses will not get a hearing in the Senate, even though it is moving swiftly through the Florida House, effectively killed the measure for the session. 

"I don't think this is a Second Amendment issue,'' said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, whose committee hear all the gun bills. "I think what we're talking about here is campus safety and the best way to address that issue and whether the proposed cure is worse than the disease."

Diaz de la Portilla also refused to hear the campus carry bill last session. He said, however, that he will hear a separate gun bill, SB 300, that would allow concealed-carry license holders to openly display their guns in public and private spaces.

The announcement came on the same day of Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fort Lauderdale, added her voice  to the Democrat's opposition to the array of pro-guns bills moving through the Florida Legislature.

Wasserman Schultz, who served in the Florida Legislature for 12 years, said that she's not only a constituent of the Legislature from Broward County but a mother.

"I'm here to sound the alarm to make sure that they wake up and understand that they should be listening to people,'' she said. As a mother of twins who are juniors in high school, she said, "it's really troubling and disturbing to me to think they could be on a college campus where another student may decide to solve a problem with a gun."

January 12, 2016

No decision yet whether gun bills will proceed in Florida Senate

 

@ByKristenMClark

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he hasn't determined yet whether two controversial pieces of gun legislation will be heard before his panel during Florida's 2016 legislative session.

Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla holds the fate of the NRA-backed bills in his hands. One (HB 4001 / SB 68) would allow 1.4 million people with concealed-weapons permits in Florida to carry firearms on state college and university campuses. The other (HB 163 / SB 300) would let those same permit-holders openly carry wherever they're allowed to carry concealed now.

Both bills gained swift favor from Republicans during committee weeks in the run-up to the session, which began Tuesday. But in the Senate, they're both at a standstill until Diaz de la Portilla decides whether to schedule hearings.

"I'm reviewing both bills," he told reporters Tuesday. "We want to make sure we dot our I's and cross our T's before we make a decision on whether to agenda those or not."

Continue reading "No decision yet whether gun bills will proceed in Florida Senate" »

Video(s): What to watch for in Florida's 2016 legislative session

From tax cuts and health care to gambling and guns, here are six key issues and themes to watch for as the 2016 Florida legislative session gets underway today.

Continue reading "Video(s): What to watch for in Florida's 2016 legislative session" »

January 11, 2016

Video: Previewing gun proposals for the 2016 legislative session

@ByKristenMClark

There's been buzz for several weeks about controversial proposals that Republican lawmakers are considering in the hopes of expanding gun owners' rights in Florida. Now that the 2016 legislative session is beginning this week, we'll find out just how far these proposals will go and if they truly have a chance to become law.

One of the proposals -- to allow concealed-weapons permit-holders to carry guns on public college and university campuses -- made headway last year but died when that session ended abruptly.

But the committee weeks last fall gave lawmakers plenty of time to revive that plan for 2016 and begin work on others -- including one that would allow concealed-weapons licensees to openly carry firearms in Florida and another that relaxes Florida's stand-your-ground law by shifting the burden of proof in court.

None of the bills is a walk in the park.

The stand-your-ground bill needs some political maneuvering in order to pass both chambers, and heading into the session, the open-carry and campus-carry bills are at a standstill, although they're likely to clear the House. Both await further hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has so far been mum on whether they'll be heard. If he doesn't take them up, the bills have minimal, if any, chance at being enacted.

The other factor to consider: 2016 is an election year, and politicians often don't want controversial votes on their record if they're in competitive races. With that reality in mind, legislators might be more hesitant to consider bills like these.