TALLAHASSEE - The Miccosukee Indians persuaded a House committee Wednesday to give them more control over their civil and criminal matters, despite pleas from sheriffs and prosecutors that such action could jeopardize the health and safety of Floridians.
The bill (HB 269) was approved 11-6 by the Committee on Public Safety and Crime Prevention after lobbyists for the tribe twisted arms and whispered in the ears of committee members as witnesses denounced the measure.
A similar bill (SB 424) is pending in the Senate, where it has been approved in two committees and awaits floor action.
The measure would leave all criminal and civil matters on reservations up to the tribal courts or federal authorities. Under current law, state law enforcement and courts have jurisdiction.
Law enforcement and prosecutors fear the measure would hinder criminal investigations and expand casino gambling.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Kathy Rundle led the opposition, saying the Miccosukees arrested officers who went to the reservation to investigate a tribal member accused of killing his children.
"Two young children were murdered by their father and the tribal courts dismissed the charges and advised us they had forgiven the father with an apology and a handshake," Rundle said. "There are times when law enforcement has to have the ability to step up to the plate."
For almost two hours committee members listened to lobbyists for and against the bill. Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, the bill's sponsor, rejected the fears of law enforcement and said the tribe should control its own affairs.Frank Messersmith, a lobbyist for Florida sheriffs, urged the committee to reject the bill until additional research could be done.
"We worry that it will create islands of immunity all over the state where local law enforcement cannot enforce the law," Messersmith said.
One thing is clear: If the state gives up jurisdiction on tribal lands, it cannot take it back by the mere passage of another law.
A similar effort by Miccosukees last year failed. Throughout Wednesday's meeting Ronnie Book and Larry Smith, lobbyists for the tribe, buttonholed committee members at the side of the room, advising them on procedures.
After a favorable vote, Rep. Juan Zapata, R-Miami, used a procedural move to delay the bill from moving out of the committee.
Book began shouting from the front row, urging committee members to seek adjournment of the meeting before the move to delay could be completed. Chairman Gus Barreiro, R-Miami, took a quick vote to see if he could get the necessary two-thirds vote to overturn Zapata's motion, but failed. That means the bill cannot move to the next committee or to the House floor for at least a week.