(The Center Square) — The Florida House Criminal Justice Committee approved two bills on Thursday that would allow compensation to be given to people who were wrongfully incarcerated and increase penalties for assaulting a defense attorney.
House Bill 43 was first filed in December and was presented by state Rep. Traci Koster, R-Tampa. She said the amended bill will remove two barriers that prevent 17 of 84 convicts who were later exonerated in Florida from being eligible to seek compensation.
Koster added the 17 wrongfully convicted had collectively lost 270 years of their lives and were unable to seek any compensation until the bill was amended.
The amendments extend the amount of the time that a person can file a petition to apply for compensation from 90 days to two years. Secondly, these will eliminate Florida's "Clean Hands" provisions, which according to Koster is unique to only Florida.
According to the Fighter Law Firm, the "Clean Hands" provision, "excludes convicts who committed crimes while they were in prison, and convicts who committed other crimes before they were wrongfully convicted of another criminal charge and sent to prison for it."
Committee member and state Rep. Michael Gottlieb, D-Plantation, said "Since my time in the Legislature, (HB 43) is one of the most significant pieces of criminal justice reform I've seen."
The amendments were adopted with no opposition and the bill was passed.
Also on the agenda was HB 71, a bill that would increase penalties for those who commit violent offenses against law enforcement officers, judges and correctional officers. An additional amendment was added to protect criminal defense attorneys.
The bill was presented by state Rep. Patt Maney, R-Fort Walton Beach, who said that when most people go to a courthouse, they expect to be safe while conducting business.
Maney cited a November 2022 incident during a criminal trial in Gainesville that showed a defense counsel being assaulted by his client that was recorded on camera in the court.
Maney said HB 71 "provides for a safe space for the people's business to be conducted, and if somebody violates that law, it provides for an enhanced penalty."
Eric Atria, a public defender of almost 20 years, supported the amendment and stated that he was assaulted by a client who was strategically trying to mistrial his case.
"It turned out my client had made a calculated decision to knock me out, in order to mistry his case, so he could avoid what was going to be a long sentence." Atria said.
Atria added that since the incident, his client had repeatedly taken pride in the assault while on prison calls with his sister and admitted to intentionally causing a mistrial in his case and bragged that the assault was only a misdemeanor.
Atria said his injuries from the assault included a fracture in his skull, a concussion and a broken tooth. He argued that everyone else working in a courtroom is protected and defense attorneys should receive those same protections.
The amendment to add criminal defense attorneys and their assistants to the bill was adopted with no opposition and the bill was passed 16-1.