November 19, 2015

Guns-on-campus proposal heads to Florida House floor

Guns AP


A controversial plan, backed by the National Rifle Association, that would allow guns on college and university campuses statewide is ready for Florida's 120 House members to vote on when they begin their 2016 session in January.

The proposal (House Bill 4001) from Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, made swift progress through three House committees this fall and cleared its final hurdle on Thursday, despite passionate objections from the higher education community and campus law enforcement.

The House Judiciary Committee easily approved the bill by 13-5 vote. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee -- a co-sponsor of the bill -- joined Republicans in supporting it. The panel's five other Democrats were opposed.

"Time and time again, we’ve seen shootings in gun-free zones, and I don’t believe that should be policy in the state of Florida," Steube said of his bill.

But university and college presidents and administrators, campus police chiefs, faculty and other education groups vehemently oppose allowing guns on campus. They said again Thursday that guns don't have any place in an environment that should be dedicated to learning, and that allowing campus-carry could make emergency situations even more chaotic.

The Senate companion bill (SB 68) -- sponsored by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker -- also has gained favor this fall in two committees: criminal justice and higher education. It awaits a third and final hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it stalled last year.

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November 18, 2015

Open-carry gun bill narrowly passes second Florida House panel



A plan endorsed by the National Rifle Association that would allow more than 1.4 million Floridians to openly carry firearms continues to garner support in the Republican-led Legislature, despite concerns from law enforcement groups and other critics about the absence of additional training or holstering requirements and other safeguards that they want included.

House Bill 163 -- sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- narrowly passed the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday by a 7-6 vote. Tampa Bay-area Republican Reps. Chris Latvala, of Clearwater, and Kathleen Peters, of South Pasadena, joined four Democrats in opposition.

Gaetz said the “urgency” in adopting the legislation is “to fully vindicate the Second Amendment and the rights that Floridians ought to enjoy.”

But Peters said the bill doesn't address concerns related to public safety and wouldn't expand any constitutional rights that Floridians don't already have. The proposal would let residents with concealed-weapons permits openly carry those weapons anywhere they’re legally allowed to carry concealed now.

"It doesn’t change who has the ability to bear arms," she said. "Our core responsibility is public safety, and are we truly allowing public safety when we allow someone to carry a gun when they’re walking down the street?"

Gaetz proposed several amendments to the bill -- which the committee approved -- in an effort to counter critics; the changes appeased some opponents, but not others. He said after the hearing that it's a "better bill" than before, but he admits there's more work to be done on it.

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November 17, 2015

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 05, 2015

VIDEO: Florida Senate, House leaders sound off as special session ends


After the Legislature's special Senate redistricting session ended tonight without a redrawn map of Senate district boundaries, Republican leaders addressed the next steps and whether they could have reached a different outcome.

Read our coverage here.

Florida high school athletics back in play for 2016 session

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Members of the Florida House Education committee are again contemplating legislation that could relax eligibility rules for high school student-athletes and add oversight to the private, non-profit governing body that oversees almost all high school sports statewide.

Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, said Friday the committee had hoped to have a draft bill presented this week, but it's "not quite ready." It should be available by the panel's Nov. 18 meeting, she said.

The Senate also had a hearing last month about the Florida High School Athletic Association, but no specific legislation for 2016 has been proposed in that chamber yet.

Last spring, a bill that, some said, threatened the very existence of FHSAA cleared the House but died in the Senate.

Rep. Manny Diaz -- a Hialeah Republican who will again spearhead the House legislation for the 2016 session -- said Friday he's planning to pitch similar policy proposals that would (1) make it easier for students to be immediately eligible to participate in sports when they transfer schools, (2) add oversight for FHSAA financing and operations, and (3) improve the appeals process for investigations into athletes' eligibility.

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November 04, 2015

Body-camera bill, back in Florida House for 2016, easily wins initial approval in first committee hearing


As police officer-worn body cameras become a more common accountability tool in Florida and throughout the country, state lawmakers again want to require law enforcement agencies to have standard protocols in place for officer training, use of the device and storage of the footage it captures.

After earning unanimous favor in the House last spring, the proposal stalled in the Senate amid the chaotic end to the 2015 legislative session.

New legislation filed for the upcoming 2016 session unanimously cleared the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee during its first hearing Wednesday.

Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said House Bill 93 is meant to ensure "the citizens and the police are held accountable and kept safe."

"If you look at the news, if you look at a lot of what’s taking place right now, you’ll find there’s a lot of pointing-fingers taking place — whether from the citizens’ standpoint or from the police aspect," said Jones, who's co-sponsoring the bill with Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee.

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Guns-on-campus bill continues to move ahead in the Florida House

Greg steube


In its second of three committee stops in the House, a bill that would allow guns on Florida's college and university campuses garnered support again Wednesday, mostly along a party-line vote.

The House Higher Education & Workforce Subcommittee passed HB 4001, 10-3. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee -- a co-sponsor of the bill -- joined Republicans in supporting it.

The proposal -- introduced by Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota -- would allow the 1.4 million Floridians with a concealed-weapons permit to carry their weapons and firearms on college and university campuses statewide.

The legislation continues to draw passionate testimony from both gun-rights supporters and gun-control advocates.

However, public comment and debate was limited Wednesday because of time, and most of the 70 people who attended didn't have time to comment. The committee spent an hour and 20 minutes holding a workshop on textbook affordability, leaving barely an hour to consider the campus-carry bill -- which Democrats on the committee took issue with.

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