FLORIDA POLITICS

Texting-while-driving ban officially becomes an offense

 
 
A new law makes texting while driving a secondary offense in Florida, which means drivers may only be ticketed if they are pulled over for other infractions.
A new law makes texting while driving a secondary offense in Florida, which means drivers may only be ticketed if they are pulled over for other infractions.
TRAVIS LONG / NEWS OBSERVER

News Service of Florida

An attempt to curb drivers from texting while driving goes into effect Tuesday, along with laws that put limits on funeral protests, late-night massages and the use of tax dollars at strip joints and liquor stores.

Also, a new law creates another specialty license plate, this one — the 121st offered by the state — for the Freemasons.

While the majority of the nearly 200 bills approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott this spring hit the books July 1, another round of new laws goes into effect Oct. 1.

The new laws include measures that increase penalties on those who recruit minors into gangs (HB 407) and distribute harmful material to minors at school (HB 113), as well as measures that give people the chance to speak at government meetings (SB 50) and provide protections against the theft of plastic pallets used to transport agriculture (HB 1393).

The new law getting the most attention is the long-sought texting-while-driving ban (SB 52).

The law makes texting while driving a secondary offense, which means drivers may only be ticketed if they are pulled over for other infractions. Also, the measure provides exemptions for the use of GPS devices, talk-to-text technology and for reporting criminal behavior. It also allows texting while stopped, such as at red lights.

While the measure has faced criticism for being too weak, lawmakers and the Florida Highway Patrol say the important thing is to simply have such a rule on the books.

“Over half of all teens self report they have used a cellphone while driving,” FHP spokesman Lt. Jeff Frost said. “Eleven percent of fatal crashes, where the driver was under 20, were the result of distracted driving.”

FHP has been conducting educational outreach at high schools across the state about the new law. The aim is to reduce the use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving, as one in five of those distracted teens involved in fatal crashes were using cellphones or texting, Frost said.

For lawmakers, the law, which was more than five years in the making, is just the first step to reduce texting while driving.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is expected to announce Tuesday that she will file a bill for the 2014 session that seeks to strengthen the texting-while-driving ban.

The texting law isn’t the only one coming into practice with some buzz.

A couple of vice-tied measures go into place Tuesday.

A new law (HB 701) prohibits state-issued Electronic Benefits Transfer “EBT” Cards, formerly known as food stamps, from being used at strip clubs, liquor stores and gambling establishments.

During the 2013 session, several Democrats called the Republican-backed proposal political posturing, noting that the state Department of Children & Families already had the ability to shut off state “EBT” cards from being used at such facilities.

Another new law (HB 7005) is the latest effort to crack down on human trafficking by targeting shady massage businesses that are fronts for prostitution.

The law prevents the operations of massage establishments between midnight and 5 a.m. and in most cases prohibits people from living in the businesses. The law has exceptions for businesses such as health spas and hotels that offer massage services.

Also, the never-popular field of funeral protesting will now have some state backed guidelines.

A law (HB 15) makes it a first-degree misdemeanor to protest within 500 feet of a funeral.

Besides being a first-degree misdemeanor to protest within 500 feet of a funeral, protests must halt during the period one hour before the services to one hour after the funeral or burial is completed.

The measure is a direct response to protests that have been held for several years at military funerals and other events to draw attention to the beliefs of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church.

Also, among the laws taking effect Oct. 1:

•   Free speech: SB 50 guarantees members of the public the right to speak at public meetings.

While most government meetings in Florida must be open to the public, courts have found that, under current law, there is no guarantee that citizens get to speak at those meetings.

The measure exempts emergency meetings from the requirement and allows for time and decorum limits.

•   Transportation: HB 487 creates a Freemasonry license plate, with most of the proceeds from the $25 annual fee going to the Masonic Home Endowment Fund. Presale of the plates starts Tuesday.

•   Brands for boxes: Because of the increased costs of plastic, along with reports of increased thefts of plastic pallets and merchandise containers, HB 1393 allows those who own containers for storage and transportation of agricultural and commercial goods to adopt a mark or brand to signify ownership.

•   Criminal justice:

SB 112: False documents. Strengthens penalties against filing false documents that are intended to defraud or harass others.

SB 338: Utility theft. The law imposes tougher penalties for electricity thieves. Rather than a first-degree misdemeanor, the penalty would vary depending on the value and services stolen, along with the criminal history of the accused.

HB 407: Gang prevention. The law makes it a second-degree felony to recruit or encourage anyone under 13 into a criminal gang. The law also increases from second-degree misdemeanor to first-degree misdemeanor trespassing charges for individuals previously convicted of gang related crimes in school safety zones. The law also allows judges, rather than juries, to factor gang membership into criminal sentencing.

HB 611: False information to law enforcement. Anyone who has previously been convicted of giving false information to a law enforcement officer will face a third-degree felony for repeating the offense verbally or in writing.

HB 691: Identification theft. The law makes it a first-degree misdemeanor to possess the personal identification information — such as Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, passport information and credit card numbers — of four or fewer people, and a third-degree felony to possess five or more. There are exemptions for parents, guardians and certain government employees.

HB 1173: Florida Communications Fraud Act. The law increases penalties for communications fraud, while setting a 5-year statute of limitations for the pursuit of civil and criminal actions against those who commit communications fraud.

•   Schools: HB 113 tightens rules and makes it a third-degree felony for adults to post certain types of obscene or otherwise harmful materials to minors on school property. The material could be a picture, photograph, a drawing, sculpture, motion picture film, videocassette, or similar visual representation that depicts nudity or sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sexual battery, bestiality, or sadomasochistic abuse that could be considered harmful to minors.

•   Finances, real estate and insurance:

SB 166: Annuities. Requires an insurance agent recommending the purchase or exchange of an annuity that involves an insurance transaction to reasonably believe the recommendation is suitable for the consumer.

HB 665: Mortgage broker licenses. The law ends a requirement that the Office of Financial Regulation automatically reject an application for a mortgage broker or mortgage lender license simply because the applicant had a similar license revoked in another state. Also, it requires securities and mortgage license applicants to submit electronic or live-scan fingerprints for required background checks by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI. Currently, the applicants are required to submit paper fingerprint cards for the checks.

•   Contractors: HB 973 allows an alarm contractor to start work on a low-voltage alarm system project without first having to notify the local government. Instead, the contractor must notify the local enforcement agency within 21 days of the item being installed.

•  Public record exemptions:

SB 452: Creates a public-records exemption for the Joshua Abbott Organ and Tissue Registry, which involves lung transplants.

HB 731: Creates a public-records exemption for spouses and children of law enforcement personnel.

HB 7079: Keeps a public-record exemption alive for select information contained in records documenting acts of domestic violence or sexual violence.

HB 7143: Keeps a public-records exemption alive tied to identifying certain donors to the direct-support organization for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

HB 7145: Keeps a public-records exemption alive for all complaints in the custody of a state agency involving employment discrimination.

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