Monday, April 14, 2008

Bill adds oomph to police protection


Every day on the streets, law enforcement officers run the risk of being hurt or killed in the line of duty.

Florida legislators, hoping to provide more legal protection for officers, are trying to push through a bill that will make the murder or attempted murder of a law enforcement officer punishable by a mandatory life sentence.

The bill passed unanimously through the House last week and the corresponding Senate bill is set to go to the floor.

"It sounds like at least we're being thought of," said Fort Myers Police Officer Rich Love.

Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, who co-sponsored the bill, said the measure gives state attorneys an advantage during plea discussions. If the charges carry mandatory life sentences, it would give defense attorneys less room to negotiate.

"Hopefully, it will provide protection for police officers," Thompson said.

Florida laws provide enhancements for violent crimes committed against law enforcement officers, ranging from seven years to life, depending on the crime and other factors. Penalties for first-, second- and third-degree murder of a law enforcement officer now range from a low of 221Ú2 years to life, according to an analysis of the bill by legislative staff. Punishments for attempted murder range from 71Ú2 years to 30 years.

According to Officer Down Memorial Page Inc., which tracks officer deaths, 17 Florida law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty since 2007 - eight from gunfire.

Criminal defense attorney Joseph Viacava said he sees legislators' efforts to create more mandatory sentences as a slap in judges' faces.

"You're basically not trusting our judges to do the right thing," he said. "It's an insult to the courts."

Viacava gave a hypothetical

example of a teen who robs a bank and fires a shot in the air after being spooked by the presence of a police officer versus a hardened criminal who deliberately shoots at an officer.

If the bill passes, it would give judges no ability to see a difference between the two crimes when it comes to sentencing, he said.

"(A judge) shouldn't have his hands tied behind his back," Viacava said.

"That judge should have the discretion to make the decision, not some politician in Tallahassee."

Thompson said an additional benefit of the bill is giving the family of the officer reassurance the killer won't leave prison.

"They won't have to agonize over the years whether that person will be able to get out," Thompson said. "They won't have to get that letter."

Love said most criminals don't think about the penalties involved before committing a crime. He said he doesn't believe the bill will deter much crime.

"We've had the death penalty for some time and it hasn't stopped people from killing a police officer," he said.

Love said he believes officers should be equal to other victims when it comes to penalties.

"Whether it be a police officer, a firefighter, a nurse or a housewife, the penalty should be the same," the 24-year veteran said.

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