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Florida's penchant for knee-jerk legislation hurts in the long run

The old man is fading. Those who know him say he looks far older than his 65 years.

He is diabetic, and his eyesight is nearly gone. He's had multiple surgeries in recent years, and appears destined to die in a prison hospital bed.

And what was Ronald Thompson's crime?

While defending an elderly neighbor from four unwelcome guests in September 2009, the retired Army vet fired two warning shots into the ground with a legally owned handgun.

For this, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Welcome to Florida.

We like to talk tough in this state. We take hard lines and bold stands. We pass rigid laws that sound all red-white-and-blue to the mindless followers of talk radio and chain email.

But the reality is never quite as infallible as the rhetoric. And one too many knee-jerk reactions in Tallahassee has turned Florida into a national punch line.

We are, you might say, the state of unintended consequences.

Listen to the architect of the "stand your ground'' law arguing that it was never intended to protect someone who pursues and confronts another.

Listen to the early proponents of educational accountability saying they never intended for the state's curriculum to be tailored around standardized tests.

Listen to the author of the state's mandatory minimum sentencing law saying he never intended for everyday folks to be caught in the cross-hairs.

This doesn't mean their motives were impure, and it doesn't mean the concepts were worthless. It just suggests we need to better consider the ramifications before charging forward with campaign buttons in hand.

Otherwise we end up with cases such as Thompson's.

A VA hospital volunteer on full medical disability, he was visiting a neighbor's home in Keystone Heights when her adult grandson and three friends arrived.

The grandson had previously been told he was not welcome at the home, according to Thompson, and court filings indicate he began cursing his grandmother.

Thompson retrieved his handgun and fired a shot in the ground as a warning. He later fired a second shot in the ground to scare them off.

You can certainly argue whether Thompson's decision to wave a gun around was wise. And you can argue whether the two warning shots should have resulted in his subsequent conviction for aggravated assault.

You cannot, however, reasonably argue that his actions warranted a 20-year sentence.

Unfortunately, Thompson was a victim of a minimum mandatory sentencing law passed in 1999 under Gov. Jeb Bush's direction.

The law, known as 10-20-Life, states anyone who carries a firearm in the commission of a crime faces a 10-year minimum sentence. If the weapon is fired, the minimum sentence increases to 20 years.

"I think at the time there was this irrational fear that judges were being too soft and letting some criminals off too easy,'' said attorney Steven Whittington, who is seeking a new trial for Thompson based on mistakes made by the previous defense attorney. "Because of that fear, the Legislature got involved, and we now have this situation where the judiciary has been completely robbed of its discretion.''

In other words, there are no extenuating circumstances. No room for interpretation. The original judge in Thompson's case defied the state law and sentenced him to three years, but prosecutors appealed and the 20-year sentence was imposed.

"What's problematic in this case is the crime he was charged with is a third-degree felony punishable by no more than five years,'' Whittington said. "But because of the mandatory minimum, he goes from a maximum of five years to a minimum of 20.''

Whittington expects to hear soon on his motion for a new trial and, barring that, may seek clemency for his client.

Meanwhile, a group called Families Against Mandatory Minimums, FAMM, is hoping to use this case to shine a light on the state's sentencing laws.

Gov. Rick Scott has convened a task force to study the "stand your ground'' law, and FAMM's Florida director, Greg Newburn, says it should also look closely at mandatory minimum sentencing.

"On the one hand you have this very vague statute with all kinds of ambiguous interpretations, and on the other hand you have a uniform one-size-fits-all sentencing guideline,'' Newburn said. "It's insane when you think about it.''

Florida's penchant for knee-jerk legislation hurts in the long run 06/16/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 16, 2012 8:04pm]

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