Someone — a child, a mother, a brother — is killed. Witnesses are too afraid to speak up. A murderer goes free.
In many of Florida’s vulnerable neighborhoods, talking to police could be a life-or-death decision for those who witness violent crime. Their reluctance to cooperate makes it difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to seek justice.
State lawmakers want to change that culture by affording murder witnesses protection and shielding their identities in public records for two years after the crime.
“Let’s stop this no-snitch mentality,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, a Miami Democrat who’s sponsoring HB 111 this year. “Someone knows what happened, but no one is coming forward because they’re afraid. Witness intimidation, retaliation — all of these are issues and concerns that people have about helping law enforcement help us.”
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We have so many unsolved murders, not just in South Florida. ... I’m not trying to help a murderer terrorize our community with a shield of intimidation.
State Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami
Her bill earned unanimous support Wednesday in its first of three hearings — both from the lawmakers on the House criminal justice committee who voted on it, 14-0, and from several stakeholders in attendance, including a group of mothers who drove from Homestead because they had lost family members to murders that remain unsolved.
Among other supporters are Florida police chiefs, county sheriffs, the state police officers’ union, The Children’s Trust and Miami-Dade Schools. Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, an outspoken advocate for child victims of gun violence, is among the fiercest proponents.
“I don’t think you can ignore that in Miami-Dade alone in the past 24 months there have been 64 children who were killed from gun violence,” Carvalho told the Herald/Times last week. (He could not attend Wednesday’s hearing.) “One of the impediments that we hear from the community is real fear. There are witnesses to some of these crimes, but individuals are afraid of speaking out because of the potential consequence of retaliation.”
Typically, witnesses’ identities in police and court records are public information. Stafford’s measure would create a new exemption in Florida’s public records law and prevent murder witnesses’ information from being released — similar to protections afforded to confidential informants and victims of child abuse, sexual offenses or child human trafficking.
“This is a statewide problem and it is of state concern,” state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said. “In order to make our streets safe, in order to protect our children, we need to pass this bill.”
Florida’s public defenders are neutral but question how the proposed law would respect defendants’ constitutional right to confront their accusers.
“We just want to make sure it doesn’t have collateral consequences that delay the criminal justice system,” said Bob Dillinger, the public defender for Pinellas and Pasco counties who is the president of the Florida Public Defenders Association.
Dover Republican Rep. Ross Spano, the House criminal justice chairman, said legislative staff “are satisfied it meets constitutional muster.”
We just want to make sure it doesn’t have collateral consequences that delay the criminal justice system.
Bob Dillinger, president of the Florida Public Defenders Association
However, the bill has a significant — but so far, relatively quiet — opponent: the First Amendment Foundation, which advocates for open government.
And the foundation maintains that reluctance on this year’s proposal, President Barbara Petersen told the Herald/Times. The organization was not represented at Wednesday’s hearing.
“I’m sympathetic to these people who have lost a loved one,” Petersen said, but “we need to know who those witnesses are, we need to know about their veracity and their backgrounds. There’s so much we need to know to have that critical oversight. We have to protect the integrity of our criminal justice system.”
She reiterated another concern the foundation also had last year: “We don’t have evidence that these people are not coming forward” because they’re not shielded in the public records law, she said.
However, proponents say anecdotal evidence of witness retaliation is great and justifies the need for an exemption.
For example, the legislative analysis cites the death of 14-year-old Edward “E.J.” Harris, who in 2015 was killed in a drive-by shooting in the Tampa area that his family believes resulted from Harris’ giving information to police about previous crimes.
Stafford offered another example: The MLK Day park shooting last month in Miami-Dade. One of the suspects in that shooting had been arrested in 2015 for allegedly shooting three people, but “the state attorney had to drop the charges because the witness recanted out of fear and intimidation,” she said.
“I have headlines in my district: ‘10 deaths in 10 days,’ ” said Stafford, whose district includes Opa-locka, Liberty City and parts of Miami Gardens. “We have so many unsolved murders, not just in South Florida. ... I’m not trying to help a murderer terrorize our community with a shield of intimidation.”
It’s unclear how the measure will fare in the legislative session that begins March 7. In 2016, the proposal unanimously passed two House committees, with some revisions, before stalling in both chambers.
The Senate version of this year’s bill (SB 550), sponsored by Orlando Democrat Randolph Bracy, was filed in late January and has not yet been assigned to committees for review. Public records exemptions need at least two-thirds’ support in votes of the House and Senate in order to be approved.