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Legislature gives murder witnesses some protection by shielding their identity

TALLAHASSEE — With overwhelming support from the Florida Senate on Thursday, a proposal — heavily inspired by ongoing gun violence in Miami-Dade County — that affords new protections for murder witnesses will go to Gov. Rick Scott's desk and possibly become law.

HB 111 passed the Senate by a 34-3 vote, similar to the near-unanimous show of support the bill received in the House late last month.

Senators from Miami-Dade County called the bill "long overdue."

"I talk a lot about senseless violence and things that happen in my community. This is one of those bills that will help the law enforcement officers find the perpetrators of these senseless acts," said Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens.

Hialeah Republican Sen. René García agreed: "Back in our community, the biggest problem that we have is people don't want to speak up when they see a crime. This bill is going to go a long way to ensure that people's voices are heard, their identities are kept private."

Described as a "witness protection" bill, HB 111 creates a new exemption in Florida law that shields murder witnesses' identities from being released in public records for two years after the crime. However, criminal defendants and their attorneys could still have access to the name as required during a criminal case, such as the period of discovery before a trial.

Before the Senate vote, the chamber recognized about a dozen parents from South Florida seated in the public gallery above. They were members of Miami's Parents of Murdered Kids who have traveled frequently to Tallahassee this year to lobby in support of the bill.

"It's a lot of parents losing their kids senselessly," said Sen. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami Shores, a main co-sponsor of the bill. "This bill really is just a little token of what these parents are going through."

It's unclear how quickly Scott might take action on the bill. First, the Legislature has to formally send the bill to his desk, but there's no requirement for how soon that needs to happen. If Scott gets the bill during session, he has seven days to act; after session, he has up to 15 days. He can choose to sign it, veto it or let it become law by not acting on it.

Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz would not say whether Scott planned to sign it. "We're reviewing the bill," she said. (If it becomes law, it would take effect July 1.)

The three senators who voted "no" weren't a surprise. Each had voiced concerns and opposed it previously during the bill's first committee hearing in the Senate: Democrat Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, and Republicans Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Rob Bradley of Fleming Island.

"I have a really big concern that we're going to give members of the public false hope that somehow by not putting their names down on a piece of paper that they are going to somehow be protected from reprisal," Clemens said in February. "By letting someone believe that their name won't come out for two years, I think we're not being truthful to some extent with people who are going to be putting their life on the line."

The First Amendment Foundation also objected to the bill. Foundation president Barbara Petersen has said the measure chips away at government oversight by the public and that there is no evidence to support that a lack of protection in public records is the reason witnesses aren't coming forward.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at kclark@miamiherald.com or 850-222-3095. Follow @ByKristenMClark

Legislature gives murder witnesses some protection by shielding their identity 04/14/17 [Last modified: Friday, April 14, 2017 9:41pm]
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