FORT MYERS – Gov. Rick Scott has signed into law a bill that makes it harder for anyone who has committed a violent crime to get out on bond if they violate their probation.
At a ceremony in Fort Myers on Monday, the governor signed into law Senate Bill 844, also known as the Officer Andrew Widman Act, named in honor of the Fort Myers officer killed in the line of duty.
The bill clarifies the law for probation courts, and in particular for any defendant who has committed a violent crime, and then violates the terms of their probation or house arrest. The new law allows judges to keep them in jail for up to ten days until their probation violation hearing.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Lizabeth Benaquisto and state Rep. Matt Caldwell, was named in honor of Fort Myers Police Officer Andrew Widman, who was shot to death on July 18, 2008, while responding to a domestic violence call involving an offender who had an outstanding warrant.
“The Officer Andrew Widman Act empowers judges to keep criminals off the streets,” the governor said. “If a person is likely to be sentenced to prison if found guilty, then it is in the best interest of public safety to hold that person in custody while waiting for a hearing.”
As he signed the bill into law, the governor also took part in a candlelight vigil hosted by the Fort Myers Police Department to honor fallen police officers. Widman was killed by Abel Arango, who pulled out a gun and shot Widman in the face, after the officer tried to break up a fight. Widman died instantly.
Arango fled the scene, followed by other officers who shot and killed him.
An investigation into the case showed that Arango had a long criminal history and was supposed to have been deported in 2001. It also revealed that Arango had been released after he got arrested in May 2008, even though he was on probation for a previous offense.
A grand jury looking at the case recommended that Florida lawmakers allow a judge to hold a suspect in custody if they are on felony probation and are arrested on a felony charge.
Sen. Benacquisto noted on her Facebook page that she was proud to have sponsored that bill.
“It was an honor to stand next to Governor Rick Scott, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, Representative Matt Caldwell, Judge Nick Thompson, Mayor Randy Henderson from the City of Fort Myers, and especially Chief Doug Baker as Governor Scott signed into law the Officer Andrew Widman Act,” she wrote.
The new law is a warning to anyone who has committed a violent offense and then placed on probation – that if they violate it, there likely won’t be an opportunity to get a bond and be released before their court date.
In Orlando, probation court at the Orange County Courthouse is presided over by Judge Alice Blackwell. Often times, the inmate who has violated parole is represented by an attorney who has worked out a sentence with the State Prosecutor’s office, and it’s left up to Blackwell to approve that sentence.
“If you can’t enter a plea, the sentence will be left up to me,” Blackwell told one inmate during a recent court hearing. “You’re leaving the entire sentence up to me.”
In another case, the inmate lost his probation after violating it.
“I sentence you to 10 months in the Orange County jail,” Blackwell said. “There will be no further probation to follow.”
The inmates are also required to pay court costs, and asked to set up a monthly payment schedule for it once they’re completed their sentence.
“If you don’t follow these rules, your driver’s license can be suspended,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell has also cautioned inmates that if they plead guilty to a felony conviction, they will lose certain rights upon their release.
“It means you will lose your right to vote, and your right to keep and bear firearms, and other rights,” she said.
But in most cases, Blackwell asks the inmate a series of questions – do they know how to read, are they under the influence of any drugs or alcohol, are they represented by counsel – to be sure they understand the proceedings before a sentence is imposed on them.
“I find that you’re alert and intelligent,” she told one inmate. “At this time, I find you to be in violation of your probation, and I terminate that probation.”
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