Tampa Bay Times by Kristen M. Clark
March 30, 2017
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.” [READ MORE]