A bill initially aimed at protecting the witnesses to a felony crime has now gone through another change in the House, after passing a second committee.
Originally, Rep. Ed Narain’s (D-Tampa) bill provided a public records exemption for the identity of a witness to a felony. It’s gone through some other changes, but the measure has now been narrowed again.
“It basically narrows this public records exemption to provide that it will only apply to witnesses of a murder, instead of all felonies,” said Narain.
The measure stems from a 14-year-old, who was murdered in a park. According to the Tampa Police Department, Edward Harris was a witness to crimes that led to multiple arrests.
“You have the opportunity today to stop the snitching mentality, and supporting House Bill 475, you have the opportunity today to save my life, your life, and a child’s life by supporting this bill,” said Tangela Sears.
Sears is the founder of Miami Dade Parents of Murdered Kids. She spoke recently to lawmakers at a House panel about the measure, and she brought with her other parents who had similar stories.
Among them is Tranell Harris, who used to be a mother of four living children. That quickly changed, when her son Richard Hallman—an aspiring engineer—was fatally shot in March of last year. With no witnesses coming forward, it’s now an unsolved murder.
“The last conversation I spoke with my 16-year-old son was ‘I love you,’ and he walked outside and I got a call back three hours later, my son was dead,” said Harris. “And, yes, we do have people that see something, that know something, but of course, they’re scared to speak. I’m a mother of three now. I support this bill not only as a bill of words, but a bill of movement.”
While Leon County Public Defender Nancy Daniels says the bill is heading in the right direction with its latest change of protecting witnesses to murder, she still has an issue with the bill. She represents the Florida Public Defenders Association.
“Our only issue is at line 19, where it states that the only entities that can get access to this information are governmental entities for use of the performance of official duties,” said Daniels. “As criminal defense lawyers who represent people charged with crimes, we are entitled under the rules of discovery and the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right of confrontation to find out the names and identifying information of witnesses that are going to testify against our client. It’s part of our due process of law.”
Barbara Petersen, the President of the First Amendment Foundation, had similar objections. She’s voiced her concerns to the measure in all its forms in the past, saying it’s unconstitutional.
“They are trying to narrow it, but they’re still not addressing the issue of the constitutionality of denying this information to a criminal defendant,” said Petersen. “And, once information is lawfully obtained—in other words, once the prosecution gives the information to the criminal defendant, who has the right to confront his or her accuser—once that information is given to the criminal defendant, the government cannot control the downstream use of the information. So, I just don’t see how this is going to work.”
Still, Narain’s bill has encountered bipartisan support, earning all “yes” votes so far. It now has one more stop before heading to the House floor. Meanwhile, the Senate bill by Inverness Republican Senator Charlie Dean has not yet had a hearing.
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