October 09, 2015

Advocates urge Florida Legislature to take up death penalty sentencing reforms

Florida execution chamber


On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging the legality of Florida's death penalty sentencing procedures -- a case that could have far-reaching repercussions on past and present death penalty cases in the state, some fear.

A group of criminal justice advocates say the Florida Legislature could avoid such a chaotic outcome by simply updating state law to conform with the constitutional standard set by a prior U.S. Supreme Court opinion, one that most every other state follows.

At issue is the jury's role in determining whether a defendant should receive the death penalty. The Supreme Court previously ruled that it's the jury's responsibility, not a judge's, to decide that and that a jury must recommend that outcome unanimously on each count.

While almost every other death-penalty state changed its laws in the wake of that 2002 decision, Florida did not. Florida law allows for a death-penalty recommendation if only a simple majority of a jury -- seven of 12 jurors -- supports it.

State lawmakers have, for years, been trying to change the law to require a unanimous jury recommendation, but they've been unsuccessful. Some legal experts fear the 2016 session is the legislature's last chance to make changes before the Supreme Court takes hold of the situation.

Continue reading "Advocates urge Florida Legislature to take up death penalty sentencing reforms" »

October 08, 2015

Confederate Flag in Florida Senate seal on its way out


Citing historical inaccuracies and a need to reflect modern values, a Senate committee unanimously recommended Thursday that the Confederate flag be removed from the Florida Senate’s official seal.

The vote came after little discussion and no opposition from the bipartisan panel. A two-thirds majority vote of the full Senate, or support from 27 of 40 members, is needed to complete the change.

Sixteen different flags have flown over Florida in its long history, and the state shouldn’t endorse flags of illegitimate governments, he said, referring to the Civil War rebellion of the southern states.

For others, the rule change embodies something more personal: a desire to rid the Senate’s insignia of a controversial symbol that has a widespread effect, “especially [for] those of us who have African ancestry as it relates to a dark period in our history that still has a profound effect upon many of us,” said Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.

More here.

October 07, 2015

Florida Senate could remove Confederate flag from its seal


SenatesealLawmakers are meeting Thursday morning to discuss whether to update the decades-old insignia for the Florida Senate and rid it of a reference to the controversial Confederate flag.

The rebel flag has drawn renewed criticism nationwide since the racially motivated shooting at a Charleston, S.C. church last summer.

At the request of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, the Senate Rules Committee will "review and evaluate" the official seal, which was adopted in 1972.

Per chamber rules, the seal's center contains "a fan of the five flags that have flown over Florida" -- those of Spain, France, Great Britain, the Confederate States and the United States of America.

A proposal that will be presented to the committee tomorrow removes reference to the five flags and lists specific ones that "have flown or presently fly over Florida" -- the "1513 Spanish flag, the current Florida State flag, the current United States flag, the 1564 French flag, and 1763 flag of Great Britain."

The revision swaps out the Confederate Flag in the seal for the current state flag. The change would also affect the coat of arms for the state Senate. Download Senate Seal_Proposed Senate Rule Change

Changes to the Senate seal require a two-thirds majority vote of the Senate.

The "Southern Cross"-style flag that's included in the current insignia is actually battle flag for the Confederacy, not the rebellion's official flag. That banner was known as the "stars and bars," which depicts 13 white stars arranged in a circle on a block of blue, next to horizontal red and white bars.

This is possibly not the only discussion over the Confederate flag that Florida lawmakers could have next session.

Democrats Rep. Darryl Rouson, of St. Petersburg, and Sens. Geraldine Thompson, of Orlando, and Dwight Bullard, of Cutler Bay, have filed bills for the 2016 session that would prohibit local, county or state government entities in Florida from displaying any Confederate flag or similar symbols. House Bill 243 and Senate Bill 154 have each been referred to four committees in their respective chambers, but no hearings have been scheduled yet.

Image credit: archive.flsenate.gov

FHSAA: Harsher penalties needed for high school athletics recruiting

Cook27 MiamiCentralFB SPTS


State law needs to be changed to make it easier for high schools to crack down on the recruiting of student-athletes, the executive director for the Florida High School Athletic Association told a Senate committee Wednesday.

Roger Dearing asked lawmakers to pursue legislation in their 2016 session that would instill harsher penalties for coaches and teachers who recruit athletes and that would make it more reasonable for schools to prove wrongdoing and improper behavior.

Students are supposed to change schools for academic reasons or because they move into a different district; coaches and teachers are not allowed to entice a student to change schools to play for a sport. But athletic recruiting is still a somewhat-common, yet hard-to-prove practice, particularly in highly competitive areas such as South Florida.

Dearing told the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee that he continues to hear stories from parents about coaches or school representatives who have approached student-athletes to convince them to join their programs -- even going so far as using burner phones to contact the teenagers in secret.

"We really need some statutory help with that. Recruiting is our hugest problem," Dearing told senators. The FHSAA is a private, non-profit organization that, under Florida law, serves as the official governing body for interscholastic athletics. It has 800 member schools statewide.

Why is recruiting prohibited? "You can’t have adults manipulating children for their own gain," Dearing told reporters after the hearing.

Dearing told the committee the FHSAA has received 12-15 complaints of alleged recruiting in the past four years. None were investigated last year, but two schools have investigations underway now: one in the Florida Panhandle and another in South Florida. (Dearing declined to say which South Florida school, but did confirm it's not in Miami-Dade.)

State law was changed a few years ago to set a higher bar in order to prove recruiting: “clear and convincing evidence,” which Dearing said is the “same preponderance of evidence in a murder case.”

"It’s next to impossible to prove recruiting," he said. "The level of proof is just a little bit higher than we can actually reach in most cases."

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, asked Dearing to suggest wording for legislation that could replace the existing law.

The FHSAA's oversight of high school athletics has been the subject of legislative discussions for several years. Last year, for instance, a bill that, some said, threatened the very existence of FHSAA cleared the House by an 86-29 vote. It died in the Senate.

Lawmakers are expecting "several bills" to be filed for the 2016 legislative session that could affect high school athletics and the FHSAA's governance authority.

The Senate committee's workshop on Wednesday was being held to prepare members for those future discussions, said Vice-Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice.

Photo credit: Miami Central running back James Cook gets tackled by Booker T. Washington defensive back Marquis Decius during first half of a high school football game Saturday night Sept. 26, 2015. Gaston De Cardenas / Miami Herald

Florida Supreme Court will hear challenge to state's ban on openly carrying guns


The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Fort Pierce man's constitutional challenge to Florida's ban on openly carried weapons.

The agreement from the court came in a notice filed late Tuesday, the same day a House committee advanced a proposal to allow Floridians with concealed-carry permits to openly carry their weapons in public. Florida has prohibited open-carrying of firearms since the late 1980s.

Dale Lee Norman was arrested in 2012 while openly carrying a firearm; he had it in a holster in public view, according to court records. He was found guilty of a second-degree misdemeanor after a jury trial in St. Lucie County. On appeal, he challenged the constitutionality of Florida's law, citing the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth District Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision.

Supreme Court Justices gave Norman until Oct. 26 to file his brief with the court. Oral arguments haven't yet been scheduled.

Read the Supreme Court's order.

October 06, 2015

Open-carry bill passes Florida House subcommittee


Gun owners in Florida with concealed-carry permits are one step closer to getting the right to openly carry those weapons in public, under legislation that cleared a House subcommittee today by a 8-4 vote.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who introduced HB 163, said it “restores and vindicates” Second Amendment rights and promotes public safety. But critics of the proposal said it should, at a minimum, include better training requirements and also better protect property owner’s rights if they don't want weapons in their homes or businesses.

Those who are in total opposition said an open-carry law in Florida would instill fear, rather than calm.

“When I am out at Starbucks and there’s a cop there with his gun, it’s intimidating and it’s scary,” said Shawn Bartelt, a retiree and mother of two teenagers from Orlando. “I do not want to walk around when I walk my dogs and know that somebody’s carrying a gun out there. … I don’t want my kids raised in a world where we’re being less civilized.”

Gaetz argued that fighting for gun-owners’ rights has the opposite effect, and he said federal crime statistics are on his side.

“While we will certainly hear from shrill voices on the left that open carry will lead to the wild, wild west, that is not borne out by any of the data we have,” Gaetz said. He said U.S. Department of Justice statistics from 2012 actually show less violent crime in states with open-carry laws.

Florida is one of only five states and the District of Columbia, which prohibit openly carrying firearms and other restricted weapons.

Continue reading "Open-carry bill passes Florida House subcommittee" »

October 05, 2015

Bill allowing open carry of guns in Florida gets first hearing Tuesday



As the national debate over gun laws has resurfaced in the wake of last week's deadly community college shooting in Oregon, Florida continues to debate its own proposals here in Tallahassee.

Next up is a bill that would relax existing state law by allowing anyone who is licensed to carry a concealed weapon to also openly carry that firearm in public. The proposal gets its first hearing before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Tuesday morning, and it's sure to draw input from both gun-rights advocates and gun-control supporters.

HB 163 is sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. It's co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Neil Combee of Polk County, Brad Drake of Eucheeanna, Dane Eagle of Cape Coral, Jay Fant of Jacksonville and Charles Van Zant of Keystone Heights.  Van Zant and Fant both sit on the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. Download HB163_AsIntroduced

Gaetz's father, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, introduced the Senate companion (SB 300), which has yet to be referred to a committee in that chamber.

Matt and Don Gaetz are holding a press conference at 8 a.m. Tuesday to discuss their legislation at the Capitol.

Continue reading "Bill allowing open carry of guns in Florida gets first hearing Tuesday" »

October 02, 2015

Analysis: 1 in 3 Florida legislators were elected without a single vote

@ByKristenMClark @MaryEllenKlas

When Florida lawmakers return to Tallahassee for another redistricting special session on Oct. 19, they will talk a lot about how to comply with court guidelines when redrawing state Senate districts, but they’ll say much less about how competitive to make them.

That’s because in 2012, lawmakers redrew the House and Senate maps to adjust for population changes in the decennial census and to comply with the new anti-gerrymandering amendments to the state constitution. The result: a third of all legislators were elected in their last election without a single vote. They got here by default.

Legislators wield tremendous power in Florida — from crafting the state’s annual budget and determining how much taxes people pay to deciding whether to implement environmental preservation spelled out in Amendment 1.

Drawing the political boundaries for the next decade through redistricting is like creating the rulebook for who calls the shots.

With that as the backdrop, the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times examined how many votes each legislator received in their last election, and assessed the intensity of competition and voter support for all 160 of them.

September 29, 2015

As federal shutdown looms, Grayson touts bill to end 'self-destructive political ritual'


With another federal government shutdown possible this week because of disagreements in federal funding for Planned Parenthood, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a U.S. Senate candidate from Orlando, released a video statement to talk about a bill he introduced earlier this year that would stop government shutdowns altogether.

Calling shutdowns "a dangerous and self-destructive political ritual," Grayson said his bill would avert such crises by "applying existing budget levels to all federal agencies until a new law is passed creating new ones."

"My bill, H.R. 1776, is our declaration of independence from the tyranny of government shutdowns, both actual and threatened," Grayson said.

The bill has just one co-sponsor, Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright. It was referred to the House Appropriations Committee in April, where it still awaits a hearing. GovTrack.us gives the bill a 7 percent chance at being enacted.

Grayson is running against U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, and North Palm Beach attorney Pam Keith in next year's August Democratic primary in the race to fill Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate seat.

Watch Grayson's video message in full:



September 28, 2015

Most Dems in Florida Legislature endorse Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate, campaign says


Five more Democratic state lawmakers are getting behind U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, in the party's primary race for Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate seat.

Murphy's campaign announced the endorsements today from Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey, Cynthia Stafford of Miami, Richard Stark of Weston and Mia Jones and Reggie Fullwood, both of Jacksonville.

In statements provided by Murphy's campaign, the state legislators praised Murphy as "the kind of fresh, new leader we need."

The added support gives Murphy the backing of almost 60 percent of the 53 Democrats in the Florida Legislature: seven in the Senate and 24 in the House, his campaign said.

Murphy, who represents the Treasure Coast and part of Palm Beach County, is poised to have a showdown with fellow U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, and North Palm Beach attorney Pam Keith in next year's August primary.