Florida Legislature adopts stiff new penalties in gang fight


Florida Legislature adopts stiff new penalties in gang fight

By Josh Hafenbrack


12:23 AM EDT, May 2, 2008


The Florida Legislature on Thursday approved stiff new penalties that could hand life sentences to gang leaders in a broad program to cut off gang recruitment efforts and target the so-called kingpins who finance and organize gang activity.

With the House’s 119-0 vote, which followed unanimous approval from the Senate, the anti-gang legislation heads to Gov. Charlie Crist, who has said he’ll sign it into law.

Attorney General Bill McCollum said the bill would give police new tools to combat what he described as the nation’s fastest-growing gang problem.

Florida is estimated to have more than 1,000 active gangs with 65,000 members.

"We view them as the principal source of violent crime in our state," McCollum said at a Capitol news conference, flanked by sponsors of the bill and other legislators. "They’ve gotten out of control, and not just in a few select areas like the Palm Beach area."

In one high-profile incident, shoppers at the Boynton Beach Mall had to dive between racks of clothing and hide in closets to avoid gang-fueled gunfire on Christmas Eve 2006.

"Anything that will assist us to combat gangs is a good thing," said sheriff’s Lt. Mike Wallace, commander of Palm Beach County‘s 2-year-old Violent Crimes Task Force. "From what I know about the bill, it has a little more teeth and it will help us in our investigations."

Even supporters, though, say the legislation is missing a critical component: money. In a tight budget year, legislators didn’t include funding for potentially complex, costly investigations and prosecutions.

In fact, as legislators touted their efforts to curb gang violence, the House was preparing to vote for a budget that eliminates hundreds of prosecutors and public defenders.

Wallace noted the funding issues raise some concerns.

"What I would hate now is for us to do what this bill allows us and then not have attorneys to prosecute," he said.

Gang "kingpins," who lead gang operations, would face first-degree felony charges punishable by up to life in prison. Until now, these gang masterminds typically have gotten away with a "slap on the wrist" for their role in gang activities, said Sen. Jeff Atwater, R- North Palm Beach, who sponsored the bill.

The bill also makes it a crime to recruit new gang members, including through new media platforms such as videos on YouTube and pages on social-networking sites.

Police would be authorized to seek court injunctions and restraining orders to stop gangs from gathering at known hangouts.

And it gives police broad leeway to link suspects to gangs, which civil-liberties groups question as unconstitutional. Suspects’ tattoos, style of dress and use of hand signals could be used by law enforcement to prosecute them for promoting gang interests.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also is authorized to create a statewide gang database, although there’s no funding for the effort.

"I realize it’s a bad budget year. But the only way we’re going to solve the gang problem is to invest in police and prosecutors," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D- Greenacres, a former prosecutor who’s pushed anti-gang legislation. "We can’t win this gang war on the cheap."

Atwater, though, said police already are going after gangs, and the legislation makes it easier for them to conduct their investigations.

"Let’s decide this violence will cease in our state," he said. "We’ll take back our streets, we’ll take back our high schools."

Rep. Maria Sachs, D- Delray Beach, said the legislation serves notice to gangs: Florida is getting serious about taking them out.

"We are organized and we are tough, and we are going to fight these thugs no matter where they strike," she said.

Staff Writer Dianna Cahn contributed to this report.

Josh Hafenbrack can be reached at jhafenbrack@sun-sentinel.com or 850-224-6214.

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