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Judiciary Committee tackles gun-rights measures, along with Palm Beach claims bill

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The Senate Committee on Judiciary overwhelmingly passed a claims bill Tuesday, compensating a man seriously injured as a teen when the van he was riding in was smashed from behind by a school bus belonging to the district.

The claims bill — SB 24 — was sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, who wanted the district to stick with a portion of a future compensation awarded by a jury.

The district admitted liability in the 2006 incident, in which Altavious Carter, then 14, was inside van of his coach, Vincent Merriweather, then 41, when the driver a school district bus slammed into the back of the van Merriweather was driving.

Merriweather was immobilized in 80 percent of his body as a result of the crash a settlement was reached in 2009 for $3.9 million.

Carter, who underwent a series of costly and intense surgeries, including on his spine and back, was awarded an initial judgment of $574,000, with future claims of up to $518,000.

However, the Palm Beach County School District opposed SB 24 in the committee hearing on Tuesday, citing Carter has made a full recovery and even went on to play basketball at Eckerd College.

But the committee wasn’t interested in the county’s opposition and promptly passed the measure 8-0.

The committee heard several other measures Tuesday, most of which had to do with gun-rights legislation in the Sunshine State.

Now lawmakers are looking to take advantage of their Republican-controlled majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate, with Gov. Rick Scott’s support, to expand on those rights.

But one Republican on the committee — Flores — voiced her opposition to the array of legislation before their committee on just the first day of the Legislative Session, including a controversial bill that could allow firearms on state campus universities.

With a packed room of voters looking on — many of them mothers in attendance of another bill on yet to be heard about keeping the identities of murder witnesses confidential — she contended her opinion differed from others on the committee.

However, she did support a bill introduced by Sen. Greg Steube, chair of the Judiciary Committee, relating to guns and courthouses.

“If this bill expands, or any other bill, expands beyond its current scope, it’s something I will not vote for,” Flores said firmly to her fellow senators.

“I do not support having guns on campus, I do not support having guns in airports and I do not support guns in school zones,” she said, acknowledging that she and Steube “do not see eye-to-eye” on the issue. Her sentiment was echoed by fellow South Florida Republican Rene Garcia.

More than 1.7 million Florida residents already have permits to carry concealed handguns, the most of any state in the U.S.

Separately, Sen. Steube’s bill narrowly passed a vote by the committee. It would allow those with concealed gun licenses to approach a courthouse, draw their handgun out and hand it to law enforcement at the entrances to judiciary facilities for proper and secure storage while licensees conduct their business inside.

When those concealed carry licensees leave the courthouse, SB 616 contends, those individuals would pick up their firearms safely from storage with law enforcement.

The bill squeaked by 5-4.

Steube told the committee and those in attendance the bill is intended for lawyers, judges or even victims of domestic violence fearing reprisal.

Two much-anticipated measures on Tuesday were tabled that would exempt law enforcers, retired law enforcement officers and concealed carry licensees from the standard three-day wait time all other Floridians must go through in the process of purchasing handguns.

Sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, the bills — SJR 910 and SB 912 — would also waive the criminal background check for qualified individuals among the three groups specially singled out for such expedited handgun purchases.

If approved the amendment would be brought before a general election to be held in November 2018 or a special election specifically authorized by law, according to the language of the bill.

SJR 910 is actually an amendment to the State Constitution for the exemptions.

Specifically, a “concealed weapon or concealed firearm licensees and certain current and retired law enforcement officers from certain county criminal history and waiting period requirements when purchasing a firearm, providing a contingent effective date,” Baxley’s SB 912 proposal, a continuation of SJR 910. tried to reach the Senator for comment without success.

Another bill, introduced by Sen. Rob Bradley — SB 494 — looks to compensate the victims of wrongful incarceration, although the measure has been before the Statehouse floor several times before without success.

“It’s my hope we can get this passed this time around,” Sen. Bradley told the committee, which voted unanimously in favor of the proposal.

Finally, another bill introduced by Sen. Randolph Bracy was unanimously passed.

CS/SB 550 is a confidentiality bill, intended to keep the identities of those testifying as witnesses in a murder trial secret and out of public record. A number of cases of murder witnesses being intimidated have let killers go free.

This bill intends to end that cycle.

“My only daughter was murdered right here in Tallahassee in 2008,” Orlando City Commissioner Regina Hill told the committee on Tuesday in the committee meeting room. “It was a bittersweet memory arriving here today. We need you today to pass this bill.

“Once they know they’re not protected by the ‘no-snitch’ attitude — they’ll think twice about picking up a gun again,” she concluded emotionally.

Les Neuhaus is an all-platform journalist, with specialties in print reporting and writing. In addition to Florida Politics, he freelances as a general-assignment and breaking-news reporter for most of the major national daily newspapers, along with a host of digital media, and a human rights group. A former foreign correspondent across Africa and Asia, including the Middle East, Les covered a multitude of high-profile events in chronically-unstable nations. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, in which he served as a Security Policeman, and graduated from the University of Tennessee with a B.A. in political science. He is a proud father to his daughter and enjoys spending time with his family.

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