November 17, 2015

Drone liability bill narrowly advances in Florida Senate

Drones AP


Facing opposition from prominent business groups, a Florida Senate committee on Tuesday narrowly passed a proposal from a Miami Republican that would make Floridians who own or operate unmanned drones liable for the cost of any damage and injury they cause.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed an amended version of Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla's measure by a 5-4 vote.

Drones have become increasingly more common for a variety of commercial and recreational uses. Senate Bill 642 would allow Floridians to recover costs from the owner or operator of a drone if "negligent operation" of the device caused them injury or damaged their property.

Lobbyists representing the Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Retail Federation, the National Federation of Independent Business and other groups said Tuesday they can't support the bill in its amended form, because of where the proposed law would be placed in statute and because of the wording it contains.

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Effort to repeal Florida's cohabitation ban moves in Florida Senate


A proposal to scrap Florida's 147-year-old ban on unwed men and women living together got unanimous approval during its first committee stop in the state Senate for the 2016 session.

Senate Bill 498 -- proposed by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood -- gets rid of the second-degree misdemeanor crime, which Sobel says 4.4 million Floridians are committing. The law is rarely enforced.

Sobel's bill now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration.

A House version of the repeal effort also got initial favor earlier this fall. That bill is sponsored by Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee.

Unlike the House hearing in September, Tuesday's Senate committee hearing prompted no debate.

Only Florida, Michigan and Mississippi still have laws making cohabitation illegal. Eight other states that once had similar laws have repealed them.

Stiffer penalties for 'terroristic threats' approved by Florida House panel


People who make "terroristic threats" would face harsher penalties under a proposal that earned unanimous approval from the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Tuesday.

The plan from Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, would make it a third-degree felony for someone to threaten or cause terror and/or prompt the evacuation of a building, public place or public transportation facility.

A conviction would also result in the person having to pay the cost of the evacuation and any damages stemming from it.

While bomb threats are a felony, current law allows terroristic threats -- such as a threat of a school shooting -- to be prosecuted only as a misdemeanor under criminal mischief or disturbing-the-peace laws, Smith said.

"This bill recognizes the seriousness of these threats and provides appropriate criminal penalties for them - especially those that target our teachers, judges, law enforcement and others," Smith said.

The proposal is also supported by the Florida Police Benevolent Association and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

House Bill 257 now goes to the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

The Senate companion, sponsored by Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has been referred to three committees, but no hearings have been scheduled yet.

Democrats successfully maneuver to kill 'Stand Your Ground' changes in Florida House



A plan to strengthen Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law during the 2016 legislative session died an early death in the state House on Tuesday, after a subcommittee rejected the legislation on a deadlocked vote.

House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, joined with the panel’s four Democrats to oppose a bill by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that would have given defendants who claim self-defense more protection from prosecution.

House Bill 169 would have required prosecutors to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- during a procedural hearing before trial -- why a defendant's self-defense claim isn't valid.

In contrast, Florida courts, culminating in a Florida Supreme Court ruling in July, had previously ruled that the defendant had the burden of proving why they shouldn't be prosecuted because they acted in self-defense.

Trujillo, a former assistant state attorney in Miami-Dade County, said he supports the way "Stand Your Ground" operates now, and the burden should remain on the defendant who claims self-defense.

"If you’re alleging something, you have to prove it," Trujillo said.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, was absent for the vote, resulting in the 6-6 tie.

The surprise result was preceded by two late-filed amendments from Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, which he said he proposed as "an insurance policy" with the ultimate intent to kill the bill in committee. Both amendments passed by a 6-5 vote; Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, was absent for those, along with Latvala.

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November 16, 2015

Proposed changes to 'Stand Your Ground' law get hearings this week


A proposal that would give defendants more protection under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" Law will go before two legislative committees this week.

Some Republican lawmakers want to strengthen the law in response to a 5-2 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court in July, which affirmed that the defendant bears the burden of proof in demonstrating that they acted in self-defense.

Some legislators believe the court erred in its finding and they want to make the law explicitly clear that it should actually be the prosecutor who should prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" -- before trial -- why a defendant's self-defense claim doesn't qualify for immunity protections.

House Bill 169, introduced by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, gets its first hearing before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee at 9 a.m. Tuesday. The Senate version gets its second vetting before that chamber's Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Florida's 10-year-old "Stand Your Ground" Law allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives in certain circumstances. A defendant's stand-your-ground claim is vetted during a pretrial evidentiary hearing, when they can seek to dismiss the case by citing self-defense immunity.

Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, writing for the majority in the July opinion, said requiring the defendant to prove their ability to qualify for such immunity is "principled, practical and supported by our precedent" for other motions of dismissal.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island -- the Senate sponsor -- said last month that the court's ruling exhibited "classic overreach" that conservatives, such as him, find "objectionable."

Bradley said it is a "fundamental tenant" of the American judicial system that someone is innocent until proven guilty, and he said the circumstance should be no different for someone who asserts immunity from prosecution under the "Stand Your Ground" law. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee advanced the bill by a 4-1 vote during that Oct. 20 hearing.

Criminal defense attorneys, public defenders, the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups support the bill; while state prosecutors, victims rights advocates and the Florida League of Women Voters opposes it.

The legislation also would allow the defendant to recoup attorneys fees and other costs up to $200,000, if the court granted a defendant's motion to dismiss the case.

The proposed legislation would apply retroactively to pending cases, if enacted.

Lawmakers want to ban Florida from implementing EPA clean air rule


Two Republican state lawmakers are joining Florida's Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi to fight what they view as an over-reaching plan by President Barack Obama's administration to combat the effects of climate change and reduce the nation's carbon footprint.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, have introduced legislation that would prohibit state agencies from implementing a proposed rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dubbed the "Clean Power Plan."

The rule requires Florida to cut its carbon dioxide emissions 26 percent by 2030 -- a mandate that Diaz says could harm the state's economy and threaten Floridians' jobs.

Diaz said in a statement today that he views it as his job as a lawmaker "to ensure that over burdensome regulations do not hurt Florida’s most financially vulnerable citizens" and "to push back against a regulation that was adopted by unelected bureaucrats who do not understand what the cost to Floridians will actually be."

House Bill 639 and Senate Bill 838, both filed last week, state that "the Legislature must establish and direct the state's energy policy to best protect the standard of living of its citizens." The bills would prohibit state agencies from limiting -- or even planning to limit -- carbon dioxide emissions unless Congress enacts legislation directing it or a federal court upholds the EPA rule.

Last month, Bondi joined 23 other states in a lawsuit challenging the EPA over the "Clean Power Plan," calling it both an economic and states' rights issue. Her participation in the lawsuit made her the target of a recent attack ad launched by the political committee run by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

November 12, 2015

Lawmaker renews call for body camera regulations, after police officer who shot Corey Jones is terminated


Shev jonesA Broward County lawmaker is renewing his call for more transparency and accountability measures from law enforcement, now that the Palm Beach Gardens police officer who shot Corey Jones last month has been fired.

Palm Beach Gardens officials announced Nouman Raja's termination today. (More here.)

“Those of us who have sought justice in this case still have been shortchanged of meaningful information,” Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said in a statement. “Even with the firing, we don’t know the details of how the police department reached this decision. Our quest for justice begins with transparency and facts."

“This is just the beginning,” he added. “We have a long way to go until we get justice for Corey Jones."

Jones said justice and transparency can come from more accurate records of police shootings, such as those which might be provided by dash-camera or body-camera footage -- neither of which is available in the investigation of Corey Jones' death.

Corey Jones was shot dead at 3 a.m. Oct. 18 on an I-95 off-ramp in Palm Beach County after his car broke down. Raja was on duty in plain clothes and driving an unmarked police van, when he stopped to investigate what he thought was an abandoned vehicle. Jones was shot three times.

The unmarked police van had no dash camera, and Raja wore no body camera, because the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department doesn't own or use the devices.

Shevrin Jones has again proposed legislation that would require police agencies to have policies and protocols in place if they choose to use body cameras, but his bill falls short of mandating use of the devices. (More here.)

“Body cameras won’t necessarily save a life,” Shevrin Jones said. “Matters like these will allow for the police force to set forth rules and regulations for the officers, and the proper protocol and procedure in handling them.”

Photo credit: The Florida Channel

Gov. Rick Scott, Florida colleges team up to raise graduation rates - but no specifics attached


Rickscott111215Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a challenge to the state's 28 colleges today: Graduate 100 percent of their full-time students to either attend a four-year university or land a job.

The colleges say they're unanimously on board -- but it'll be up to them to figure out how to more than double the current statewide average graduation rate of 43 percent.

The governor says they'll have his support, but he's offering no money or other specific resources behind his “Ready, Set, Work” College Challenge, which he announced Thursday.

Instead, Scott told reporters in Lynn Haven that he wants colleges to find an inexpensive solution, much like a business would be required to reach a goal without raising costs.

"We have record funding for our state college system, but I'm going to challenge all of them to do this less expensively," Scott said.

"My expectation in business was every customer had to succeed," he added. In this case, he said colleges need to look at students and the businesses wanting to hire them as their "customers."

He encouraged colleges to find out what businesses want from future employees and provide students with internships or other programs to fulfill those needs.

"Every child is important, so we need to have a program at every state college that they're focused on every, every, every student getting a degree or going on to university and finishing with a great job," Scott said.

He said he doesn't want colleges to increase their tuition or fees; "I want to make sure whatever capital dollars we put into the system get a return, and you know what the return should be? It should be good-paying jobs," he said.

Photo credit: The Florida Channel

AFSCME union endorses Patrick Murphy for U.S. Senate



Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy has picked up another high-profile endorsement: the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

Murphy, a congressman from Jupiter, announced the union's support this afternoon in a conference call with reporters.

AFSCME Florida Executive Director Andy Madtes said the union's 15,000 members "just felt that Murphy was the best choice for us and our members" and that they plan to mobilize to help Murphy's campaign. Murphy will also have the backing of AFSCME International and its 1.6 million members nationwide.

Madtes said the union vetted Murphy and fellow Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Orlando Congressman Alan Grayson over the summer on issues such as workers' rights and income inequality.

Madtes said AFSCME's endorsement of Murphy is "not a reflection on anything negative," in regards to Grayson. He said the members want a candidate who will fight for workers in Washington, D.C., and it was a call of "who could do it best."

It's the latest in a growing list of endorsements Murphy has picked up in his bid for Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate seat. While Murphy has poised himself to be the Democratic establishment's favorite, Grayson is garnering support from grassroots donors and progressives.

Less than two weeks ago, Murphy also heralded the endorsement of the Florida Teamsters and three national Democrats during the state party's annual convention at Walt Disney World.

North Palm Beach attorney Pam Keith is also running in next summer's Democratic primary.

Four candidates are running in the Republican primary: U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, and Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox.

Photo credit: Walter Michot / Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times

November 11, 2015

Cause damage with your drone? You might have to pay up



As unmanned commercial drones continue climbing in popularity, so does the potential for accidents in which wayward devices might physically harm people or damage property.

Under current Florida law, there’s nothing a victim could do about such an accident, so a Republican state senator from Miami said he wants to fill that “void in the law.”

The proposal from state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla would provide a legal recourse for victims of drone accidents to recoup their expenses should a drone — for example — lose control and hit a high-voltage electric line or tumble into a crowd of people.

“They’re very hard to control and they can cause massive damage if they fall,” Diaz de la Portilla said of the devices, which can have a variety of functions and sizes, ranging from personal cameras that can be lofted into the air to armed military aircraft.

Senate Bill 642 would allow people to recover costs from the owner and operator of a drone if the device “was a substantial contributing factor” in causing the damage. The manufacturer and distributor of the device also could be sued if the damage resulted from a defect or design flaw.

Photo credit: AP