TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - New restrictions on expert witnesses, minors seeking abortions, and local governments with gun ordinances kick in Saturday as new bills passed by lawmakers earlier this year go into effect.
In all, 29 new laws go on the books Oct. 1, the first day of many local governments' fiscal years and the last major push of legislation passed during the 2011 Legislative session.
Among the most controversial measures is one that places heavy fines on local governments that enact tougher gun laws than those imposed by the state. Despite being on the books for decades, laws prohibiting cities and counties from enacting stricter gun laws lacked any teeth. No more.
Backed by the National Rifle Association, the new law imposes penalties for local officials and fines of up to $100,000 in attorney fees and damages if a plaintiff successfully sues local officials gun laws that go beyond state law. City and county officials face fines up to $5,000 and can't use taxpayer money to defend themselves in court.
Local officials have spent the past few months repealing local ordinances deemed to be tougher than state law. The bill was one of a handful of NRA-backed measures pushed during the last legislative session. Another that restricts the ability of health care providers from asking patients about gun ownership is being challenged in federal court.
Also controversial is another law that kicks in Saturday. The bill (HB 1247) makes a number of changes to the current laws requiring parental notification when minor girls seek an abortion. Among the changes, the bill lengthens the time a judge has to act on request for a judicial bypass.
The measure also requires minors seeking a judicial waiver from the requirement to seek a judge within their judicial circuit. Minors can now seek a judge residing within their appellate district, a much larger geographic area.
Backers say the measure still provides protections for minors who feel they can't tell their parents. Critics say that in some small judicial circuits, the new law will make it difficult for the minor to remain anonymous.
Other bills that go into effect Saturday include:
- HB 75: The law creates the crime of "sexting", the transmission of sexually explicit pictures, often by cell phone. But it reduces the penalties from what they would be for teens charged with doing that now, which would brand them a sex offender for many years. Under the new law, a first time offense would not result in a sex offender label.
- House Bill 75 modernizes these laws to ensure that childrens lives are not ruined due to youthful indiscretion," said sponsor Rep. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington. "This reform will let our youth know that such behavior is wrong without labeling them sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
- HB 479 bolsters requirements for expert witnesses in medical malpractice lawsuits. Gov. Rick Scott in June signed legislation that doctors said was their most significant victory at fighting off lawsuits since caps on certain damages were put in place in 2003. The legislation makes it harder for some doctors from out of state to serve as expert witnesses in medical malpractice cases. The bill also gives medical and dentistry boards the authority to discipline witnesses who provide "deceptive" or fraudulent testimony in a malpractice case. Another feature of the bill creates a standard informed consent form for cataract surgery patients and says that incidents resulting from certain specific risks aren't considered adverse incidents.
- HB 99 allows companies providing five types of commercial insurance coverage to raise rates without first seeking approval by the Office of Insurance Regulation. The provision still allows the agency to reject rates that are excessive, inadequate or unnecessarily discriminating. The bill continues a move begun last year when Gov. Charlie Crist approved an insurance package that deregulated other lines of commercial coverage. The changes were supported by the insurance industry and employer groups. "The bill pretty much completes changes begun last year," said Sam Miller, executive vice president for the Florida Insurance Council.
- SB 344 makes it a crime to have sex with animals or know about someone having sex with animals, or making it possible to have sex with animal. Apparently, existing Florida law does not allow for easy prosecution. The law makes it a first degree misdemeanor, punishable by p to a year in jail.
- HB 339 is aimed at reducing credit card fraud by toughening penalties for possession of stolen credit or debit cards by someone who knows or should know the card was stolen.
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