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    'Three strikes' law is out for now

    An appellate court throws out the law on tougher sentences for repeat offenders. The decision now goes to the Supreme Court.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 24, 2002


    Florida's "three strikes" law, one of Gov. Jeb Bush's premier anticrime initiatives, was struck down Wednesday by a state appeals court.

    The 1999 law, which requires tougher prison sentences for criminals who commit their third violent crime, is unconstitutional, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland ruled.

    The Florida Supreme Court now will take up the issue, though it was unclear late Wednesday how soon that could happen.

    The ruling will have no immediate effect on people who are already in prison, state officials said, but it throws the future of the "three strikes" law into doubt.

    The ruling means that Florida criminals will no longer be sentenced under the "three strikes" law until the Supreme Court decides the issue. Until then, the appeals court's decision will affect all of Florida unless an appeals court elsewhere in the state issues a conflicting ruling.

    Bush, who advocated the "three-strikes" proposal during his 1998 campaign for governor, was disappointed but said he would try to get the law re-enacted in the legislative session that started Tuesday.

    "I am committed to restoring the protections in the "three-strikes' law for our seniors, police and all Floridians," the governor said. "Florida's crime rate in 2000 was the lowest in 28 years, and laws like "three strikes' are a critical component of our success in reducing crime."

    In a highly technical ruling, a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that the law violates the constitutional requirement that statutes deal with only a single subject.

    Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who sponsored the law in 1999, disagreed with the court decision but vowed to fix the law and get it passed again.

    "We could be done in as quickly as two weeks," Crist said.

    The law requires judges to give the maximum possible sentence for a criminal defendant's third violent crime. The law also says drug dealers and people who attack police or elderly people also must get the maximum sentence.

    Within months of the law's taking effect in 1999, the governor and law enforcement officials were crediting it with lowering the state's crime rate.

    However, the law's critics say it's too inflexible and takes away judges' discretion.

    Public defenders say they will use Wednesday's court ruling to seek shorter prison terms for felons.

    "We will start trying to implement that law in the 6th Circuit," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, "and we'll wait to see what the Supreme Court does."

    The Supreme Court's review of the "three strikes" law likely could be delayed by legal motions filed by attorneys on both sides of the issue.

    This is only the latest court ruling that has blocked key initiatives promoted by Bush and the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature.

    In recent years, the governor and Republican lawmakers have criticized decisions by Florida courts that have blocked restrictions on abortions, rejected accelerated death penalty appeals and stalled changes in civil courts.

    Last year the Legislature approved changes in the way judges are selected for both the state circuit courts and courts of appeal, including the court that issued Wednesday's order. Bush, who signed the bill into law, will ultimately appoint all members of judicial nominating commissions that screen lawyers for the bench.

    The 2nd District Court of Appeal's ruling on Florida's "three strikes" law came in the case of Rebecca Taylor, a Sarasota woman who pleaded no contest to a drug trafficking charge last January and was sentenced to 40 months in prison.

    Wednesday's decision vacates that prison term and orders that Taylor be resentenced.

    Only two of the 13 sections of the 1999 law actually dealt with "three strikes" provisions, the court said in its opinion. Most of the others spelled out minimum sentences that must be imposed by judges in a variety of crimes, including drug trafficking cases like Taylor's.

    Those provisions, however, were similar enough to pass muster, the court wrote. But two other sections of the law were too far afield, the judges wrote.

    One expanded the definition of the crime of "burglary of a conveyance" to include railroad cars and another required court clerks to notify immigration officials when immigrants are convicted.

    The burglary part of the law was added in a last-minute amendment just before the bill was adopted, the court noted.

    "This is exactly the type of "logrolling' legislation that the single-subject rule was intended to prevent," the opinion reads.

    Normally, people have a limited time to challenge laws on the basis of single-subject because the courts have ruled that the routine re-enactment of the statutes, which lawmakers typically do every two years, cures the problem.

    However, the Legislature last year did not re-enact the laws passed in 1999 because of a dispute between the House and Senate over whether to carry out that task every year or every two years.

    -- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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