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Bills conceived with Jessica Lunsford in mind

One makes it a crime to lie about a missing person case. The other sought to clarify the Lunsford Act.

By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published May 7, 2006


Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway voiced strong support last week for a bill that would make it a crime to lie to or deceive law enforcement officers conducting a missing person investigation.

The measure, which passed the House and Senate, was awaiting a signature from Gov. Jeb Bush on Friday.

"It would be an extremely useful law to have," Ridgway said. "Obviously, we found ourselves in that situation." Ridgway was referring to the investigation into the disappearance and killing of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford last year. The State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute three of John Couey's housemates on obstruction charges.

Sheriff's investigators said Couey's half-sister and two friends lied to them about Couey's whereabouts after Jessica disappeared in February 2005. They allegedly failed to tell investigators that Couey was staying at their mobile home about 150 yards from Jessica's house in Homosassa.

The girl's body was found buried near the mobile home. Couey, 47, has been charged in the case.

State Rep. Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte, introduced the measure that criminalizes the act of intentionally giving false information to law enforcement officers who are conducting a felony or missing person investigation. The maximum penalty is a year in jail.

"Had we had such a law," Ridgway said, referring to investigators' questioning of Couey's relatives, "one of the people in the house would have gone to jail, maybe two."

Another bill of local interest - a "glitch bill" designed to clarify the 2005 Jessica Lunsford Act - appeared doomed late Friday. (For more on the legislative session, see Sections A and B.)

State Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, and Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, were reportedly locked in a debate over a final draft of the bill as the legislative session neared its end.

Lawmakers passed the Lunsford Act last May to mandate tougher penalties against sex offenders. But buried in the act was a requirement that districts fingerprint every vendor and ban from school grounds those convicted of crimes of "moral turpitude."

It was assailed by critics as "the law of unintended consequences."

Some school districts banned workers with decades-old convictions on minor drug or alcohol charges. Some turned away veterans and law enforcement officers who mentored children in the classroom but refused to pay for the costly background checks. Drivers who delivered milk and bread to cafeterias or mail to the front office were unnecessarily being asked to submit prints.

In January, Argenziano told the Citrus Times she was writing a bill that would define moral turpitude and exempt workers who have incidental contact with children from the fingerprinting requirement.

At the same time, Dean had a hand in a separate bill that sought to clarify the law. Among other things, the bill capped the cost of background checks at $61 and required a statewide database to avoid duplicate screenings. It also listed specific crimes that would disqualify contractors from doing business on school grounds. Besides sex crimes against children, the list includes lewd or lascivious offenses against older people and mental health patients, neglect of a child, incest and terrorism.

Citrus school officials said they welcomed any revisions that would make the law easier to enforce.

Argenziano said then she had not reviewed the bill that Dean had helped draft. But she said she would meet with Dean to discuss proposed changes to the law.

"We're both probably on the same page," she said in January. "We want to talk to people before rushing to write something."