For sixty days every year, our nice little town of Tallahassee swells with legislators, staff and lobbyist, all here to debate and pass hundreds of pieces of legislation that affect all of our lives in ways we can’t imagine or even keep up with. IPF usually leads an effort to pass one piece of legislation each year that would help prevent wrongful convictions or compensate those who have been exonerated.
As we have noted before, this year Senator Joe Negron (R-Palm City) sponsored the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act (SB 1206). The Florida Innocence Commission voted to support the Negron bill which mandated that law enforcement agencies perform lineups in a double blind fashion, i.e. using an independent administrator who doesn’t know the identity of the known suspect. This made good sense because it would remove any opportunity of suggestiveness in the process. This is not to say that law enforcement officials want to be suggestive. But studies have shown that even those with the best intentions can give inadvertent cues. Thus, this is about methods not the intent of people.
The bill was moving swiftly in both houses until Rep. William Snyder (R-Stuart) decided that he was no longer supportive of the Negron bill in the House. Snyder watered-down the identical House version of the Negron bill to remove any mandate, instead leaving it up to individual law enforcement agencies to come up with their own policies, while providing little guidance in his version of the bill on actual administration of lineups. All the Snyder bill said was that these policies had to include a protocol for the “impartial and neutral” administration of lineups. The problem, however, is that every law enforcement agency thinks the way they are currently performing lineups, which does not adhere to best practices, is impartial and neutral, mostly because they get who they think is their guy and they couldn’t imagine a scenario where they get it wrong. Exoneree Alan Crotzer lambasted the committee and the law enforcement officials present for their opposition to the stronger Negron provisions. But because Snyder was the committee chair, the rank and file members of the committee supported the change, even though a clear majority stated unequivocally to us that they supported the Negron version before they knew about the Snyder version.
What is interesting is that Snyder was for the Negron bill before he was against it. In fact, he was the most vocal supporter of the Negron proposal in the Innocence Commission:
Just for the record, I was a cop for 32 years. . . . If we leave it to self-police, some will–like Palm Beach County–and some won’t. They will never self-police, because it so easy to throw three pictures (at a witness). . . . So as long as we let people self-police, we will continue to have innocent people in prison. If we want to really put a huge marker and change that, we have the opportunity by state statute to do it. It’s hot now. But in two years, five years. 10 years, 15 years from now, it may not be on the front burner.”
Truer words have never been spoken. Snyder was simply stating the obvious, yet despite his previous, unequivocal statements in support, he derailed this bill once law enforcement got to him within the legislative process. Maybe it is because he is running for Martin County Sheriff in 2012 and he didn’t want to burn any bridges that would hurt his election efforts. Any way you cut it, it is just duplicitous.
With the Negron bill passing overwhelmingly in all committees and passing the full Senate by a 35-3 margin, we now had competing bills in both houses. Something had to give. Florida’s wrongly convicted spoke up in an open letter published in the Orlando Sentinel to the leadership of the Florida House urging them to take up the Negron bill and vote on it “as is .” Victims of crime and law enforcement joined them in the call to pass SB 1206.
Yet it wasn’t enough. Snyder, presumably with the blessing of Speaker Cannon, filed an amendment to Negron’s bill that would again water down the Senate version. Senator Negron attached his eyewitness identification reform provisions to another bill dealing with the courts (SB 1398), which was then passed the Senate on the second to last day of session. Snyder again filed the same amendment. Because this change would have been unacceptable, the bills became irreconcilable. Frankly, the constant amendments that the House knew Negron wouldn’t accept and that they knew would not do a thing to prevent misidentifications was just a cynical way to appease law enforcement and kill this bill.
Unfortunately, it worked. On the last day of the session, the House was able to take up bills disciplining individuals wearing their pants around their rear ends, but they couldn’t find a few moments to help prevent wrongful convictions. Nor could they find any time to pass Bill Dillon’s individual compensation bill, which also passed the full Senate. Both bills died because of the House’s inaction. The House even tried to nix funding for the Innocence Commission, but Senate President Haridopolos insisted on that money being in the final budget.
Where are our priorities? Does the House leadership want us to leave the real perpetrators of crimes on the streets, while creating victims and ruining lives, and then paying multi-million settlements to exonerees? Or would it just make more sense to put in place simple, cost-neutral reforms that save everyone the trouble up front? The House was faced with this moral question and instead of taking bold, decisive action based on facts and evidence, they bowed to unreasonable, but weighty special interest groups; simply punting the issue for another day.
Senator Negron and Senate President Haridopolos stepped up and deserve a tremendous amount of credit. They led on this issue, which is what we hope and expect our elected officials to do, no matter their political party or whether we agree with them on everything or even most things.
Let me say that eyewitness ID reform is the most critical but also the most difficult innocence protection reform there is. While this outcome is disappointing, your support for this bill and your action at our behest was vital to get the bill on the cusp of passage in a legislature which was dealing with drastic budgeting issues and one which is generally not too interested in innocence issues. We all should not lose sight of that. We hope that next year with renewed leadership in the Senate and the House joining them, we will achieve these and other reforms, Bill Dillon will be compensated, and we will help prevent innocent people from entering our prisons.