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Florida House approves hate crime protection for the homeless

TALLAHASSEE — Spurred by a 2006 video showing a group of teenagers bashing a homeless man with baseball bats, House lawmakers voted Tuesday to give the homeless added protection under the state's hate crimes law.

The bill would make Florida the second state to give homeless people such protection. Last year, Maryland made a similar change in response to the video showing one of three attacks that left two men injured and a third dead in Broward County.

"Nobody is more vulnerable," said Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs. "They have no place to retreat to. They have no home to retreat to and be safe in."

Responding to critics of the bill, Porth spoke with a group of about 20 Democratic lawmakers standing silently behind him.

Florida's hate crimes law provides for increased penalties if someone is specifically targeted because of his or her race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or age. The legislation would add homeless people to that list.

The House voted 80-28 to send the bill to the Senate, where identical legislation has cleared three committees and is ready for debate before the full chamber.

During an emotional 30-minute debate, Rep. Paige Kreegel questioned Porth about the need for the bill. Calling homeless people "bums," the Punta Gorda Republican said they deserve no more protection than ordinary people walking down the street.

"When all the hysteria is put aside, they're already protected," he said, referring to current prohibitions on assault or murder.

The Anti-Defamation League has concerns that adding more categories to the hate crimes law would dilute its effect.

But lawmakers were swayed by arguments in favor of protecting the homeless. Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he used to be homeless about a decade ago and slept on the floor of an office building.

"I understand homelessness," he said. "I understand what it means to wash off in a public bathroom. This bill seeks to protect our weakest."

The 2006 video was evidence against a group of Fort Lauderdale teenagers accused of attacking three homeless men with baseball bats. Two of the men were hospitalized, and the third, 45-year-old Norris Gaynor, died due to his injuries.

"It is disgusting," said Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami. "It is something this state should be ashamed of."

CORRECTION: The Anti-Defamation League has concerns about legislation to add homeless people to Florida's hate crime's law, but did not speak against the bill at committee hearings. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on that point.

Florida House approves hate crime protection for the homeless 04/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 11:49am]
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