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Lawmakers File Several Proposals To Enhance Criminal Penalties For Assault, Battery Based On Profession And Other Characteristics

Hospital worker cleans an operation room with a mop.
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A measure by Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez (R-Doral) would provide harsher penalties for those who commit assault or battery on hospital personnel. It's one of many proposals before the legislature that seeks to protect certain groups of people from violence.

A series of proposals this session would elevate penalties for those who commit crimes against someone based on their profession, gender, gender identity, or disability. It's part of an effort to protect certain groups of people. But some lawmakers don't think these measures will actually deter crime.

Already Florida increases penalties for those who commit assault or battery on law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical care providers, public transit employees, and more. Now, lawmakers are looking to extend that list. Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez (R-Doral) wants hospital personnel to be added.

"This bill would protect our healthcare workers who are on the frontlines of this pandemic by enhancing penalties on those who commit assault or battery on hospital personnel," Rodriguez says.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the health care industry experiences one of the highest rates of injuries caused by workplace violence. And violence against healthcare workers has been increasing over the years.

Under Rep. Michael Gottlieb's (D-Sunrise) proposal, families of those on the protected list would be covered. So, if someone punches a police officer's wife, that person would face a heavier penalty than if they were to attack someone else. Gottlieb says the Fraternal Order of Police contacted him about including the provision in his bill.

"They indicated that there was some hostility that had grown over the summer or I guess over the past year with individuals attacking law enforcement officers, their families," Gottlieb says.

Gottlieb's bill would also add courtroom personnel to the protected list of people. Another proposal by Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville) would create harsher penalties for anyone who assaults someone on the protected list. Instead of a first-degree misdemeanor, they would be committing a third-degree felony.

Two other proposals would expand Florida's hate crime law. The law elevates criminal penalties for attacking certain groups of people based on characteristics like race, religion, and sexual orientation. Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) wants to add journalists to that list. Rep. Joe Geller (D-Dania Beach) wants to expand the criteria to include gender, gender identity and expand the types of disabilities protected.

But Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) is concerned enhanced penalties might not protect people the way lawmakers think it will.

"And so, if our goal here is to deter crime well, we're not really going to do that because most individuals don't understand the severity of the penalty that they're committing already. It's already illegal to assault somebody, and so this idea that making things more illegal and somehow we're going to get better justice out of that is not accurate or that it's going to deter crime is really not accurate," Brandes says.

Brandes says in the case of hospital personnel, preventing violence has more to do with healthcare than criminal justice. He says patients could be going through a psychotic episode or are intoxicated, causing them to lash out.

"And so, we need to treat it in the healthcare realm, maybe not in this criminal justice realm because we're not going to get better outcomes in the criminal justice realm," Brandes says.

Gottlieb agrees that harsher penalties won't deter crime. But he says certain people need to be protected.

"If you're the spouse of a law enforcement officer and I attack you simply because of your status as a spouse of a law enforcement officer, I feel it should have an enhanced penalty. Do I think it's going to act as a deterrent? Absolutely not. But I don't think that we should be, you know, running around attacking people because they're a member of a specific class and specifically that individual has done no harm."

Gottlieb's bill hasn't yet been heard. Rodriguez's bill is on its way to a second committee stop.