Miccosukee bill alarms law enforcement officialsBy LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
© St. Petersburg Times
TALLAHASSEE -- A bill orchestrated by influential lobbyists who want to eliminate state law enforcement jurisdiction over Miccosukee Indian land is heading quickly to the House floor.
Gov. Jeb Bush opposes it. So do Attorney General Bob Butterworth and all of the state's sheriffs and prosecutors. But with little discussion or debate, the House Council for Smarter Government on Friday overwhelmingly approved the measure.
A similar bill is scheduled to be heard Monday in a Senate committee. The speed with which the bill is moving has stunned opponents, who urged legislators to let prosecutors and legal experts analyze its impact on the laws surrounding Indian affairs.
Law enforcement officials fear the measure could result in the spread of casino gambling and create havens for criminals, who could not be arrested or subpoenaed by state or local law enforcement.
Florida now has concurrent jurisdiction with federal authorities for crimes that occur on Indian land. The proposed change would leave enforcement to the tribe or federal authorities. Prosecutors say federal officials would be unlikely to prosecute domestic violence, rape and other cases routinely handled by state and local authorities.
Officials from several South Florida counties that include Indian land expressed concern over their ability to subpoena witnesses or arrest criminals on reservation land.
"We strongly oppose this bill," said Alexander Brumfield, attorney for the Hendry County sheriff. "If someone is fleeing into the reservation, does this become a haven for criminals? Is this just a bill to bypass the gambling laws? We don't know."
Several prosecutors questioned whether visitors to the reservations would be protected.
"We've had no ability to look into it," complained Gainesville State Attorney Bill Cervone. "We have concerns about how it would impact citizens on Indian lands who aren't Indians."
Hayden Dempsey, an attorney for the governor, said Bush opposes it because it would reduce or eliminate the state's ability to prosecute crimes.
Frank Messersmith, lobbyist for the Florida Sheriff's Association, questioned the rush to pass the bill: "All of the prosecutors, law enforcement officials and the governor are saying don't do this and in a 20-minute hearing you are going to resolve all the questions about Indian laws and treaties?"
The council briefly considered naming a task force study the issue, but defeated that 6-5.
As opponents began to testify, lobbyist Ronnie Book hastily called committee members to the side, negotiated with committee staff and sent messages to council chairman Gaspar Cantens.
In the end, the measure passed 9-3. The final version limits the bill to the Miccosukee Indians to allay fears that it would apply to the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which run five gambling halls around the state, including one in Tampa; the Miccosukees have one in South Florida. Opponents say the measure leaves the door open for the Seminoles to seek the same privilege.
Supporters of the bill said the Miccosukees have a tribal court system capable of handling their own legal problems while the Seminoles do not.
Dexter Lehtinen, former U.S. attorney and longtime lobbyist for the Miccosukees, said the bill is not designed to allow casino gambling on tribal lands, but opponents fear that is the main reason the Miccosukees are seeking the bill. Indian tribes are now limited to high-stakes bingo and poker.
Miccosukee Chairman Billie Cypress noted that his tribe was self-governing long before Europeans settled in the United States.
"I think Florida would be proud to have people who live here and practice their own laws, and look after their own tribal members," Cypress said after the vote. "The tribes should be considered as another state and visitors would always be protected."
The bill did not go through the usual committee process. Instead, it was assigned directly to the council, which ordinarily hears a bill only after committee approval.
Cantens said it bypassed committees because it was filed late.
"There is a great deal of uncertainty about the effect of this bill," Cantens said. "We'll continue to have dialogue on it."
But House Speaker Tom Feeney said late Friday that he and others will take a closer look at the bill.
"I think they scheduled it without really understanding it," Feeney said. "Some of our council folks thought it was fairly innocuous, but now that red flags have gone up, we'll take a closer look."
Feeney said he did not know about the bill until this week and did not put it on a fast track.
Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, filed the House bill Feb. 12. He believes the Miccosukees should have the same rights as Indian tribes in many other states.
Besides Book, 10 other lobbyists have registered to represent the Miccosukees since late January, including former state representatives Mike Abrams and Don Hazelton.
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