Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Politics

Florida House votes to limit 'Sunshine' in murder cases

TALLAHASSEE — The examples of tragedy in Rep. Cynthia Stafford's district are almost too many for the Miami Democrat to list, but she offered a few to the Florida House on Thursday:

• "A 10-year-old retrieving his basketball in his front yard, shot and killed."

• "An 8-year-old girl shot and killed, walking out of her front yard."

• "A straight-A student on her way to college — the valedictorian of her class with a full scholarship — shot and killed riding in her car."

"In each of these instances, someone knows what happens, but they're afraid to come forward," said Stafford, who represents areas that include Opa-locka, Liberty City and parts of Miami Gardens.

Stafford hopes legislation she proposed will give murder witnesses more incentive to talk with police, and the Florida House endorsed her bill Thursday in a near-unanimous vote.

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. (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.)

"Witness intimidation is real, and so is retaliation," Stafford said. "This bill will hopefully encourage people to come forward and help law enforcement solve murders."

Only three lawmakers in the 120-member House voted against granting the exemption, citing the First Amendment Foundation's opposition.

"It's a laudable purpose," said Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura. "But we always have to be vigilant when it comes to public records, and there may be other approaches that would be satisfactory here."

Also opposing the bill were Reps. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, and Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.

The First Amendment Foundation objects to shielding murder witnesses' identities because "the issue of governmental oversight is so critical," foundation president Barbara Petersen said.

"I'm sympathetic, but I don't think this is going to solve the problem," Petersen added. "The legislation sort of assumes that the problem is our open-government laws, that witnesses aren't coming forward because their information will be public record. That's an assumption. I haven't seen any evidence that supports that."

The Senate version of Stafford's bill, SB 550 by Orlando Democrat Sen. Randolph Bracy, has a strong chance of passing that chamber, too. Despite being assigned to four committees — bills usually face only three — it has just one hearing left before it could reach the floor.

Stafford said the exemption for murder witnesses is not unlike protections afforded to sexual assault victims and victims of child abuse.

Before the House vote, Stafford gave an impassioned speech describing why she pursued the legislation — comments that drew a standing ovation from the chamber, as well as applause after the bill passed. She also earned praise from House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. "Excellent job, Rep. Stafford," he said.

Several Miami-based groups advocated strongly for the witness exemption, including Miami-Dade public school superintendent Alberto Car­valho and at least a dozen mothers whose children were killed by gun violence who drove to Tallahassee several times to speak with lawmakers.

Carvalho said he believes the measure "will go a long way to protecting the safety of witnesses who know far more than what they're willing to reveal out of concern for their own lives."

"The most powerful element of this bill is that it will break the code of silence that often protects — through intimidation — the perpetrators," he said. "It's about empowering our community members with the ability to speak their minds without fear of retribution."

Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark.

Comments
Tax package would lower top tax rate for wealthy Americans

Tax package would lower top tax rate for wealthy Americans

WASHINGTON ó Congressional Republicans on Tuesday rushed toward a deal on a massive tax package that would reduce the top tax rate for wealthy Americans to 37 percent and slash the corporate rate to a level slightly higher than what businesses and co...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Trump signs $700 billion military budget into law

Trump signs $700 billion military budget into law

WASHINGTON ó President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed into law a sweeping defense policy bill that authorizes a $700 billion budget for the military, including additional spending on missile defense programs to counter North Koreaís growing nuclear w...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Donald Trump Jr. demands inquiry of House Intelligence Committee leak

Donald Trump Jr. demands inquiry of House Intelligence Committee leak

WASHINGTON ó Donald Trump Jr., the presidentís eldest son, has asked the House Intelligence Committee to open an investigation into leaked information related to his closed interview with the committee last week."To maintain the credibility of the in...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Original Watergate lock that burglars picked open is going to auction

Original Watergate lock that burglars picked open is going to auction

WASHINGTON -ó Itís the lock that launched a two-year investigation and took down a president. And now more than four decades later ó and for a starting bid of $50,000 ó it can be a really wonky conversation piece.Nate D. Sanders Auctions will auction...
Published: 12/12/17
Democrats say Trumpís tweets about Gillibrand sexist, unsavory

Democrats say Trumpís tweets about Gillibrand sexist, unsavory

WASHINGTON ó Plowing into the sexual harassment debate in a big way, President Donald Trump laced into Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Tuesday, tweeting that the New York Democrat would come to his office "begging" for campaign contributions and "do anyth...
Published: 12/12/17
Obama, Biden and Trump make late pushes in Alabama Senate race

Obama, Biden and Trump make late pushes in Alabama Senate race

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ó National political leaders, a Hollywood actress and a retired basketball star made last-ditch efforts to woo voters in the Alabama Senate race Monday, as the candidates gave their final arguments in a pivotal special election that ...
Published: 12/12/17
PolitiFact: Looking back at the Trump teamís falsehoods of 2017

PolitiFact: Looking back at the Trump teamís falsehoods of 2017

President Donald Trump made many inaccurate statements in 2017. His White House team seems to be following in his footsteps when defending him. Some of Trumpís staffers have made the argument that it is valid to use inaccurate facts to bolster larger...
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/12/17
PolitiFact: Notable misstatements about Donald Trump from 2017

PolitiFact: Notable misstatements about Donald Trump from 2017

President Donald Trump’s words can be at odds with reality, a fact we’ve documented again and again during his first year in office. His claim that the Trump-Russia investigation is a "made-up story" earned Trump our 2017 Lie of the Year....
Published: 12/11/17
Updated: 12/12/17
Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority plays beat the clock on GOP tax bill

Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority plays beat the clock on GOP tax bill

TAMPA ó With the Republican tax bill poised to eliminate the opportunity, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority on Monday said it had refinanced a big chunk of its debt to save money in the future.The authority borrowed $152 million from the bo...
Published: 12/11/17
Alabama Senate race, unlikely nail biter, races to finish line

Alabama Senate race, unlikely nail biter, races to finish line

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. ó In a blur of television ads, conflicting polls and presidential tweets, Doug Jones and Roy Moore raced Monday to make their final pleas in Alabamaís special election for the Senate, with both candidates focused on turning out their...
Published: 12/11/17