Florida Lawmakers Pass Secret Recordings Bill, Juvenile Justice Bills

Apr 22, 2015

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (left) joined by Sen. Wilton Simpson during the initial presentation of the bill last week.
Credit Florida Channel

Bills aimed at helping Florida’s youth have passed the state Senate Wednesday.

The first measure the Florida Senate unanimously passed allows young victims of sexual assault or physical violence to secretly record their attackers as evidence in court. It’s limited to victims under 18, unlike the measure that passed the House last month.

“The Senate Bill is very specifically tailored to protect those children under the age of 18, and that is a different position than the House. They have it as a wide open exemption,” said Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers).

Now, both measures include the more narrow exemption, and Benacquisto says she’s doing this on behalf of a girl in her district “who for six years—at the hands of her stepfather [Richard McDade]—was subject to unspeakable abuse and she reported that abuse, and no one believed her….not her mother, not her teacher. No one believed that she was enduring these kinds of things in her own home…in the peace and safety of her own home.”

Benacquisto says the only person to believe her was the girl’s boyfriend.

“So, her boyfriend suggested she record some of these happenings, and she did,” added Benacquisto. “She turned the recording over to law enforcement, and it became evidence. Her stepfather was convicted, but unfortunately on appeal, the conviction was overturned because in the state of Florida, you are not allowed to tape communications or these types of events without the person’s permission. So, the Supreme Court said this is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

And, that’s why she says wants to fix that loophole in the law “and give voice to the concerns and fears of children across the state and allow them to bring their abusers to justice.”

Attorney General Pam Bondi supports the bill. So, does sex abuse survivor and victims advocate Lauren Book, who concluded her sixth annual 1,500 mile “Walk in my Shoes” Journey at the Capitol Wednesday as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Book has helped get similar laws on the books to help victims.

“As we continue with our legislative progression in keeping children safe, it’s essential that laws keep up with new and developing technology,” said Book, during an earlier hearing of the bill. “As we know, one in three girls and one in five boys will become the victim of child sexual abuse before their 18th birthday, and we know that one of the biggest barriers to these young victims getting help and healing to become thriving survivors is disclosing what is happening to them.”

Another measure that passed the Senate expands Florida’s civil citation program. The bipartisan bill is by Sen. Rene Garcia (R-Hialeah) and Sen. Audrey Gibson (R-Jacksonville).

“The bill increases the use of civil citations to give more second chances to our non-violent, misdemeanor juvenile offenses,” said Gibson. “It also includes the ability to give a simple warning to a youth or inform the youth’s parents of a misdemeanor.”

It also now conforms to the House language that limits the number of civil citations given to minors.

“Rather than open-ended use of civil citations…that civil citations may be used in up to two subsequent misdemeanors following the first issuance of a civil citation. So, it’s three,” added Gibson.

The House measure by  Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed (D-Deerfield Beach) is expected to be taken up Thursday. Meanwhile, the House approved a juvenile justice-related bill by Rep. Dane Eagle (R-Cape Coral).

“It’s by far my favorite bill,” said Eagle. “It’s my third year working on this bill. You can tell I’m dedicated to accountability and parental responsibility. The idea of this bill is to infuse some parental responsibility into our juvenile justice system by allowing the judge to tie a parent or guardian to a juvenile’s restitution. That restitution can be paid up to the judge’s jurisdiction in a monetary manner or through community service.”

But, Rep. Clarke-Reed was among four lawmakers who voted against the bill. She says it’s unfair the measure exempts foster care parents or the Florida Department of Children and Families from paying the restitution of a juvenile under their care, if the child can’t pay. Eagle says the bill also makes sure restitution would stick with the child past 18, but Clarke-Reed says that’s not enough.

“I know you told me it gets carried on, but that still isn’t good enough for me,” she said. “I think something more concrete [needs to be done]…and if these children are in state custody, the state needs to pay the restitution.”

The measure’s Senate companion has one more stop to go before it heads to the floor.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.