TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s House of Representatives has just taken a giant step to help ensure the safety of just about everyone in the state.
By a unanimous vote, the House Government Accountability Committee gave an enthusiastic thumb’s up to House Bill 33 – Texting while Driving, sending a strong message to drivers that it’s time to elevate Florida’s current status for texting while driving from a secondary offense a primary offense.
“Fatalities are preventable. We just need stricter legislation,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, State Rep. Emily Slosberg (D-Boca Raton), during her closing comments. “As a state, we must start sending the right message in every single community that this is deadly behavior.”
“There was not one person that came to any of the committees and spoke against this bill,” added the bill’s other sponsor, State Rep. Jackie Toledo (R-Tampa). “I invite you all to go back to your districts and ask your constituents how they feel about this bill, and I guarantee you they will all say this change is needed.”
Today’s vote was a dramatic turnaround from last year’s non-debate on the subject. Two bills drafted in the House were not heard in any committee meetings during the 2017 legislative session.
“Texting and driving is no longer socially acceptable,” said State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Winter Park) during the meeting. “Laws like this will motivate and encourage others to think twice before they text while driving.” Smith, a co-sponsor of the bill, added, “Laws aren’t also there to stop crimes, they’re also there because they’re meant to be a moral compass for how we conduct ourselves in public and in society.”
Despite the unanimous vote, today’s committee meeting was not exactly smooth sailing. An amendment introduced by State Rep. Wengay Newton (D-St. Petersburg) attempted to insert language restricting “prolonged traffic stops” if a law enforcement officer pulls someone over for texting and driving. Newton’s fear was that law enforcement could be in violation of a driver‘s Fourth Amendment rights (unreasonable search and seizure) if he or she is held for a simple traffic infraction without the officer acting on probable cause for a more extensive search.
Some members, however, wouldn’t put a restriction on law enforcement leaving it up to individual officers to act accordingly.
“I understand the concerns of my colleague on the profiling,” said State Rep. Clovis Watson Jr. (D-Gainesville). “But I also know from a history of law enforcement and research, less than one-half of one percent of officers ‘misfit’ that uniform. But sadly, most officers are judged by that small number.” Watson is a former deputy chief of police for the city of Alachua.
“If (a police officer pulls) them over for a primary offense, which is a justifiable stop, that if they find another crime involved in that, I am not going to handcuff law enforcement for following through.” said State Rep. Matt Wilhitte (D-Royal Palm Beach).
Newton’s amendment was not adopted by the committee on a vote of 15 to 4.
Another amendment by State Rep. Barbara Watson (D-Miami) passed unanimously. Watson’s call was for law enforcement to record the ethnicity of texting and driving violators, placing the same parameters for the stricter enforcement with what police currently have to do when writing a ticket for seat belt violations.
“There was a concern about the smooth merger of the two bills if we got to this point,” said Keyna Cory, coordinator of the FL DNT TXT N DRV Coalition. “Representative Watson’s amendment was the fix needed to bring the bills closer together.”
Cory added, “While we haven’t crossed the finish line yet, we are overwhelmed by the support the speaker and members of the Florida House have given to this bipartisan bill that will save lives.”
With the passage of HB 33, all eyes now turn to the Senate as their version inches closer to passing. The Senate’s version of the bill,
SB 90 Use of Wireless Communications Devices While Driving, sponsored by State Sen. Keith Perry (D-Gainesville), could be debated as early as next week in the Committee on Appropriations. If there is a positive outcome in that committee meeting, the two bills would need to be merged before a debate by the full Legislature.