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Senate Judiciary moves measure to protect city and county attorneys

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“Such attorneys have received death threats and emails from disgruntled persons. Other incidents have included the stalking of such attorneys and their spouses and children.”

Sen. Danny Burgess

Sen. Danny Burgess

Citing a rash of death threats, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a proposal to shield the personal identifying information of current and former city and county attorneys, and assistant attorneys.

The committee voted 8-0 on January 18 to approve SB 1420 by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills. A companion, HB 1213 by Rep. Kirsten Arrington, D-Kissimmee, has yet to be heard.

Burgess told the panel some county attorneys in Florida have received death threats following “rather contentious” enforcement hearings.

“We’re being proactive here….and making sure that we’re responding to that threat before something happens,” he said.

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Ft. Myers, asked Burgess if he could estimate the number of threats.

Burgess said he couldn’t but produced a letter from the Charlotte County attorney describing “an uptick in anti-government activity” that prompted an FBI investigation.

“We’ve had a number of the incidents throughout the state,” Burgess said. “I couldn’t put a number on them, but we know they exist.”

Pasco County attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder, vice president of the Florida Association of County Attorneys, said his county board recently installed electronic locks on the county attorney office suite.

After a recent adverse ruling, one angry litigant went straight from the hearing room to the county offices to demand a county attorney’s personnel file, Steinsnyder said.

Another disgruntled litigant was turned away when he approached the entrance to a county attorney’s gated community at night, Steinsnyder said.

“We’re looking for the same protections that prosecutors have,” Steinsnyder said.

Burgess agreed.

“I believe the code enforcement officer is, in fact, protected, but the county attorney would not be,” he said. “We’re just trying to be consistent.”

The measure would exempt from Chapter 119 the home addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, photographs, and places of employment of current and former city and county attorneys, as well as assistant city and county attorneys.

It would do the same for their respective spouses and children, including the names and locations of schools and daycares.

However, the exemption would not apply to current and former city and county attorneys, and assistant attorneys, who qualify as candidates for public office.

The exemptions are necessary, according to the proposed bills, because the attorneys are regularly involved “in legal enforcement proceedings in areas of neglect and abuse” related to codes and ordinances.

“Such attorneys have received death threats and emails from disgruntled persons,” the bills state. “Other incidents have included the stalking of such attorneys and their spouses and children.”

The bills would become effective July 1 of this year.

Another measure filed this year, HB 391 by Rep. David Smith, R-Winter Springs, would shield the personal identifying information of judicial assistants, some of whom have also complained of being stalked and threatened. It and a companion, SB 432 by Sen. Tom Wright, R-Port Orange, have yet to be heard.

The Senate passed Wright’s proposed judicial assistant exemption unanimously in 2019, but it died in the House after clearing only one of three committees of reference.

During that session, Wright said he had a list of at least 24 instances where judicial assistants had been threatened or otherwise improperly contacted by parties unhappy with their cases.

According to staff analysis of the 2019 bill, “Several trial court judicial assistants have reported that attorneys, litigants, or a litigant’s family members have held judicial assistants responsible for an adverse decision made by the judge.”

The JAs reported incidents of a litigant or litigant’s family members showing up at the JA’s home, contacting JAs on their personal cell phone, or naming the JA in a civil lawsuit, the staff analysis stated.

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