Legislation turns crime victims into criminals

Posted December 11, 2017 9:11 p.m. EST

We have entered into the period shortly before the start of the 2018 Florida legislative session that might be described as Daffy Time in Tallahassee.

This is that golden moment when state legislators endeavor to file bills that are, well, plainly goofy.

For example, Sen. Greg Steube, R-Do You Feel Lucky? Well Do Ya, Punk?, is known for introducing so many gun bills every year he won't be happy until the entire state looks like a Rambo family reunion.

Fortunately cooler heads generally prevail, and the Senate Judiciary Committee blew off an attempt by Steube to push through measures that would have allowed concealed carry permit holders to bring their little friends onto college campuses, store their guns in lockers in courthouses and lessen penalties for openly carrying firearms in public.

Dodged a bullet, or two, or three there.

Not wanting to be left out of the competition to offer up the most harebrained legislation of the session, St. Petersburg Rep. Wengay Newton has filed a bill that would make it a second-degree misdemeanor for the owners of stolen cars to have left the keys in vehicles that were unlocked and/or unattended.

Or put another way, crime victims would be viewed as criminals themselves, facing a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

There already is a state law that imposes a noncriminal traffic violation for car owners who leave their cars running or otherwise unattended. Newton would criminalize such conduct.

Newton's bill was prompted by a rash of juvenile car thefts plaguing Pinellas County. In 2015, Pinellas County law enforcement officials arrested teens 499 times on car theft charges, leading the state and much of the rest of the country.

And as a Tampa Bay Times series, "Hot Wheels," has noted, at least eight teenaged car thieves have been killed over the past two years. Juvenile car theft is indeed a very serious problem, especially in this community.

But Newton's idea to criminalize victims of crime is hardly the answer.

As is so often the case when crime and punishment bills are introduced, the views of the very people who are supposed to implement the proposed laws are rarely heeded.

When the Florida Legislature created the dubious "stand your ground" law, which declared open season on … everyone, much of the state's law enforcement community opposed it and argued it would make their jobs harder. Tallahassee didn't listen. Why pay any attention to the badges when there is a ripe political issue to exploit?

Newton's effort to turn victims into the bad guys has been met with a chorus of "Are you out of your mind?" by Pinellas County law enforcement officials. Really now, what do the folks with badges know about this stuff?

Tampa Bay Times' reporters Lisa Gartner and Zachary Sampson noted that St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway, Clearwater police Chief Daniel Slaughter, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe and Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger all questioned the efficacy of issuing a black spot to crime victims.

How do you really determine if the owner of a stolen vehicle acted in a irresponsible manner?

And if you are going to charge the owner of a stolen vehicle with a crime, do you also charge a burgled homeowner who may have left the front door unlocked?

Newton's flawed legislation does not include charging car owners if their wheels get boosted by an adult thief, arguing most vehicles are ripped off by teenagers. That's odd. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A stolen car is a stolen car is a stolen car, regardless of the age of the stealer.

Dillinger argued that what is really needed is an effort to better educate the public about protecting their property.

That's a lovely idea, even though it lacks the potential for political grandstanding.

Clearly, Newton didn't thoroughly think through his bill to transform crime victims into a mug shot-in-waiting. Could his bill become law? Don't forget, this is Tallahassee, where inane ideas breed like mold spores.

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