Rick Scott Signs Bills Increasing Penalties Against Violent Sex Offenders

Finebloom, Haenel & Higgins

On April 1, 2014, Rick Scott signed a group of bills into law that are meant to reduce the chance of violent sexual predators from being released from custody.  The new laws are in response to a number of disturbing stories recently, including the murder of a Jacksonville girl and a study showing that hundreds of Florida sex offenders have violently re-offended since 1999.  The bills also closed a legal loophole that was similar to one used by a man in a Massachusetts case to escape punishment for taking pictures up women’s skirts.

One of the laws eases restrictions on civil commitment for violent sexual offenders.  This means that even if someone convicted of a violent sex crime serves their entire sentence, they could still face commitment in the mental health system.  Civil commitment could present a way to keep someone in custody for the rest of their life if they meet certain guidelines.  Unlike with a regular criminal confinement, where the sentence is set at the time of trial and the convicted person is usually released at that point, a civil commitment would mean that the person has to have a doctor and other personnel deem that they are safe to be released back in to society.  Theoretically, this means that if a doctor never decides this, the person can be locked up for the rest of their life.

Also added was a new law setting a mandatory minimum sentence for some violent sex offenses of 50 years.  A mandatory minimum sentence means that the judge has little discretion when setting the length of the sentence.  He or she would only be able to set it between the mandatory minimum and the maximum rather than no jail time and the maximum.  With such a high mandatory minimum, the sentences given to new violent sex offenders would effectively be a life sentence.

There were other laws changed as well when it comes to mandatory reporting requirements.  One notable change was a law forbidding taking secret pictures of someone of a body part that they would normally expect to be private.  This is a change that reflects a recent Massachusetts case that sparked nationwide outrage when a higher court found that the law regarding taking “upskirt” pictures was written in such a way where it would be allowed in some circumstances.  The change to the law in the bill that Scott signed would close the loophole in Florida.

These new bills will not impact prior sex offense cases, but will for ones that come up in the future.  It is also likely that defendants charged under these new laws will appeal them, leaving them up to some interpretation by the state appeals courts.