Florida’s top attorney sought more control over drug trafficking cases, draft bill shows

Ahead of the legislative session beginning Tuesday, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody has been pushing to expand her office’s control over local drug prosecutions and investigations. But she appears to have backed off the idea after receiving pushback from state attorneys and local prosecutors.

Draft language of a bill shopped by Moody’s office and obtained by the Herald/Times shows that the attorney general was proposing to give a statewide prosecutor under her office jurisdiction over drug trafficking cases normally handled by local state attorneys offices. The draft language declared that certain crimes involving the trafficking of narcotics are crimes “occurring in every judicial circuit within the state.”

The draft proposal, as written, suggests that certain crimes related to trafficking narcotics are statewide crimes, even if the physical crime never actually crossed circuit lines.

Moody’s office has been discussing the proposal with prosecutors for months and the proposal has gone through several iterations. The idea was deemed “unacceptable” and potentially unconstitutional by the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association executive board, which provided feedback to Moody’s office, emails show. Moody also met with several state attorneys on Monday morning in St. Augustine to go over the feedback.

After the meeting, FPAA President Jack Campbell said in an interview that the drug-crime jurisdiction issue is likely off the table. He said “the agreement is that we’re going to make sure everybody’s happy with whatever the language is before it goes forward.”

The suggested changes come as Gov. Ron DeSantis — in tandem with Moody’s office — has taken unprecedented steps at controlling local prosecutors’ actions in an effort to crack down on what he perceives to be progressive prosecutors who might be more lenient on criminals.

Other elements in the proposed draft legislation would give the attorney general more influence into post-conviction decisions in capital cases, and could give the state law enforcement more control over DNA testing after sentencing. It is unclear whether the proposals remain under consideration for the 2024 legislative session.

No legislation had been filed by Moody’s office as of Monday.

“While there is no filed legislation at this time regarding the referenced language, we will continue to work with interested parties throughout this legislative session to strengthen criminal justice statutes in order to reduce crime and increase public safety,” said Chase Sizemore, Moody’s spokesperson.

In DeSantis’ proposed budget for the 2024-2025 year, he proposed an additional $6.6 million to create 40 new positions in the Office of Statewide Prosecution for workload. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment, but the justification listed on his budget website says the money would be for workload associated with prosecuting “gang, violent crime and drug activity within Florida.”

Moody’s office draft proposal reflects an attitude shared by DeSantis and Moody, both of whom have posited themselves as tough on crime.

In 2022, DeSantis removed Democrat Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren from office in part because of his pledge to not prosecute those who seek or provide abortions and appointed a Republican prosecutor in his place.

A year later, DeSantis suspended Democrat Monique Worrell as state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit, criticizing her for failing to impose mandatory sentences for drug and gun crimes.

At the news conference where DeSantis announced Worrell’s suspension, Moody presented data about where Worrell dismissed charges or did not file charges. The proposed bill would require the Attorney General to submit similar data about each state attorney to the governor’s office, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President annually.

News of the drafted bill comes alongside other proposals to rearrange Florida’s judicial system. Two months ago, the Florida Supreme Court rejected a proposal introduced by Florida House Speaker Paul Renner seeking to consolidate some of the state’s 20 judicial circuits, which would have resulted in some circuits, like Monroe County in the Florida Keys, to merge with larger circuits, like Miami-Dade County.

The majority of prosecutors, public and private defense attorneys and many sheriffs opposed the consolidation proposal.

Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward, who was vocal in his opposition to consolidating circuits, says the proposed bill is a roundabout way to achieve the same goal.

“This is consolidation in another version,” Ward said.

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