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Bill to expand juvenile civil citations raises questions on officer discretion

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A bill to set up a civil citation program for juveniles statewide advanced Monday through a Florida Senate committee.

However, questions about removing officer discretion may need to be addressed before the proposal gets widespread support from lawmakers later this Session.

Miami Republican Senator Anitere Flores’ bill (SB 196) would mandate law enforcement officers to offer a civil citation for youths admitting to one of 11 separate misdemeanors: possession of alcohol beverages; battery; criminal mischief; trespassing; theft; retail and farm theft; riots; disorderly conduct; possession of cannabis or controlled substances; possession, manufacture, delivery, transportation, advertisement or retail sale of drug paraphernalia and resisting an officer without violence.

Flores introduce the bill to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Monday.

“The reason why I find this bill to be very important is that it brings uniformity to the Civil Citation Program,” Flores said, “so that ability to get a second chance doesn’t depend on where you live or what the color of your skin is, and that it just be something that in the state of Florida we prioritize for all members of our state.”

Although civil citations are already an option for all law enforcement agencies to write up, there is a huge discrepancy in the percentages of actual use among various police and sheriff departments.

For example, in the most recent fiscal year, Pinellas County used civil citations 94 percent of the time they were available. However, across the bay, Sheriff David Gee’s agency in Hillsborough used them only 34 percent of the time.

Currently, Florida law states that law enforcement officers may issue a civil citation. Flores bill would make civil citations a requirement for law enforcement in particular cases.

Although each person in the seven-member committee indicated general support for the bill, some resistance came from St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, who said that while 94 percent of Pinellas County Sheriff Deputies did write up civil citations, 6 percent believed placing the juvenile under arrest was the best thing to do.

“Why shouldn’t they be allowed to exercise their discretion?” he asked.

Barney Bishop, with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said he had been advocating such a bill since his time with Associated Industries of Florida. Nevertheless, Bishop said he had several issues with the bill as currently written.

Like Brandes, Bishop said law enforcement should not be mandated to issue civil citations; he instead suggested incentivizing police chiefs and sheriffs to create department policies to encourage the maximum use of civil citations.

Bishop also disputed the staff summary of the bill saying it will have no fiscal impact. Small counties like Taylor or Washington — ones which currently do not have any civil citation programs in place — must spend money to create such a program, he said.

Bishop then suggested small counties could work together, or with a nonprofit agency, to come up with their own program.

While Flores’ bill would only mandate a civil citation for first-time offenses, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, currently, there is no statewide database system to allow his deputies to know if a youth found guilty of one of the offenses listed in the legislation hadn’t already received such a citation in a different county.

And though Flores emphasized that the misdemeanors requiring the offer of a civil citation were all nonviolent, Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean questioned the inclusion of battery on the list.

“Battery stands out. That one might be an issue,” Flores admitted, adding that part of the problem is how expansive its definition is, including unwanted touching.

“I’m open to suggestions on how we walk that line,” she said.

The bill passed out of committee by a 5-2 vote. Brandes and Orange Park Republican Rob Bradley opposed it.

After the vote, Senate President Joe Negron issued a statement: “Instead of helping our youth to learn positively from their mistakes like we once did, they may be put in the juvenile justice system, which then creates a criminal record that could potentially follow them for their rest of their lives.”

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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