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New laws target drivers, hazing

Measures to protect police dogs, horses also among changes taking effect Tuesday

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Measures to protect police dogs and horses and crack down on hazing and child-like sex dolls are among new laws ready to take effect next week.

Also, the state’s ban on texting while driving will expand to prohibit motorists from using handheld wireless devices while driving in designated school crossings, school zones and work zones.

Just don’t expect tickets until the new year on the hand-held device law.

“You can’t have the phone in your hand at all,” Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Derrick Rahming said. “The only thing you can do is talk on a hands-free device. If you are holding a phone or any kind of device, you will be stopped, and you will be issued a warning.”

Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Riviera Beach, is using the warning period to alert his constituents about concerns the law could spur racial profiling and traffic stops of minority motorists.

“I have stressed prior to the bill’s passage that a portion of it doesn’t go far enough to address concerns of abuse by police officers,” Jacquet said in a prepared statement. “I want you to remember these words: One day we’re going to look back and we’re going to say, ‘We were wrong.’  While the sponsor of the bill had the right idea and the right mindset, the way we decided to implement the law is problematic.”

In addition to the handheld-device change, 27 new state laws will go on the books Tuesday from the 2019 legislative session, which ended in May. Of those, 12 kept alive previously approved exemptions to the state’s public-records law.

The new laws are among 189 bills signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis -- he vetoed five others -- from the session. Most new laws, 150, took effect upon receiving DeSantis’ signature or with the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

Among the changes taking effect Tuesday:

Texting while driving

Lawmakers passed a bill (HB 107) that strengthened the state’s ban on texting while driving by making it a “primary” offense, allowing police to pull over motorists for texting behind the wheel. Most of the measure took effect July 1. But starting Tuesday, it will require motorists to go hands-free on wireless devices in school and work zones. The law directs law enforcement officers to provide verbal or written warnings until the end of the year for motorists who don’t put down cellphones in those areas. Tickets will start to be issued Jan. 1, punishable as a moving violation with three points assessed against the driver’s license. 

Hazing

A new law (SB 1080) was crafted after Andrew Coffey, a Florida State University fraternity pledge from Lighthouse Point, died in 2017 after drinking a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon that had been taped to his hand.

"It was a wake-up call," said FSU Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Angela Lauer Chong.

The law targets people who plan acts of hazing or solicit others to engage in hazing and makes it a third-degree felony if the hazing results in a permanent injury. The bill also provides immunity to people who call 911 or campus security to report the need for medical assistance during hazing incidents.

"It really emphasizes the fact of caring for one another and not to hesitate if you think someone is in need of medical care because of any level of hazing, alcohol intoxication, etc.," Chong said. "And that has the most potential, in my eyes, to make a difference."

Five charged in the hazing death pleaded guilty in March 2018. Four of the nine fraternity members charged in Coffey’s death are still fighting their charges. They’re expected to argue their case before an appellate court in mid-October. 

The Coffey family reached a settlement in their civil case for an undisclosed amount of money. The family's attorney has been traveling the state and speaking to university students to teach them about Andrew’s Law.

Police dogs and horses

The measure (SB 96) makes it a second-degree felony, up from a third-degree felony, for people who kill or cause great bodily harm to police, fire or search-and-rescue dogs or police horses. The change boosts the amount of potential prison time from five years to 15 years.

Supporters said the bill stems, at least in part, from the deaths of K-9 Fang, a member of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office canine unit that investigators said was shot and killed in September 2018 by a teenager fleeing after carjacking two women at a gas station, and a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office police dog named Cigo that was killed in the line of duty.

"The outpouring and the outage came much more from the community than it did from law enforcement after Fang's murder," JSO Patrol Chief Mat Nemeth said on Nov. 28, 2018.

Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, sponsored the bill and got support across the community. 

"It's amazing how much interest is in. People who love dogs, people who love law enforcement, which is basically the entire state -- everybody is coming together," Bean said on Nov. 28, 2018.

Rep. Cord Byrd,  R-Neptune Beach, sponsored the House companion bill.

Child-like sex dolls

The law (SB 160), in part, makes it a first-degree misdemeanor to sell, give away or show child-like sex dolls. The charge increases to a third-degree felony on subsequent violations. A committee staff analysis said the importation to the U.S. of sex dolls that resemble children has become increasingly prevalent. “Such dolls are manufactured in China, Hong Kong, or Japan and are shipped to the U.S. labeled as clothing mannequins or models in order to avoid detection,” the analysis said.

Veterans' courts

The law (SB 910) removes a requirement that military veterans be honorably discharged to be eligible for participation in veterans’ courts. It also expands overall eligibility to current or former U.S. defense contractors and military members of allied countries. Veterans’ courts are designed to provide treatment interventions to military veterans and active-duty service members who are charged with criminal offenses and suffer from military-related injuries, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or a substance-abuse disorder.

 

News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.