Ralph Massullo

State Rep. Ralph Massullo.

A local state lawmaker’s recently-filed bill wants to make uttering verbal threats of harm a crime, creating a new mechanism to punish potential attackers before they strike.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, submitted HB 311, the “Verbal Threats Bill,” on Tuesday.

HB 311 proposes to amend two current state statutes to make it a second-degree felony for someone to say they want to injure someone or damage property with a weapon.

Current Florida law states that written threats or bomb threats warrant criminal prosecution, but not spoken threats to use firearms and other weapons, according to Massullo.

“It’s not a totally new idea, it’s an expansion to what we already have in law,” Massullo said Friday. “If you sincerely make those types of threats, you need to be responsible for what you say.”

Massullo said he filed HB 311 in response to a lack of enforcement that authorities and the State Attorney’s Office have in pursuing charges against those who take extreme liberties with their First Amendment right to free speech.

“…Being irresponsible with our rights that we're given in our Constitution, I don’t think that should continue in that vein,” he said.

Florida’s Red-Flag Law enables police or relatives to petition a judge to order the removal of someone’s access to firearms if they’re a danger to themselves or others.

Massullo said HB 311 would take that a step further.

“We need to start acting on those red flags,” he said.

Massullo highlighted the case of Ryan Scott Connell, the 35-year-old Floral City man who purportedly said he’d “shoot up” Inverness Primary and Citrus High schools.

Ryan Scott Connell MUG

Ryan Scott Connell

Connell made his comments on July 31 in front of Citrus County Sheriff’s Office deputies taking him to the jail after he failed a drug test in Mental Health Court. He also made separate and similar comments to a jail psychologist and to his father in a recorded jail phone call.

Prosecutors announced on Aug. 15 that Connell’s threats didn’t meet the statutory criteria to press formal charges because they weren’t written out. Connell is still jailed without bond, and has a court hearing Oct. 23 to address his failed drug test, which violated his probation.

“Like many parents, law officers and school administrators, we were shocked when we found ourselves in a situation when we had a credible verbal threat, and then being somewhat helpless in being able to address the situation legally,” Citrus County School Board Chairman Thomas Kennedy said Friday.

Thomas Kennedy

Thomas Kennedy, school board chairman

Massullo said HB 311 would not allow that to happen.

“It will not only protect our citizens,” he said, “but it will show that the government and legislators in our state are serious that…we need to be responsible for the students in our schools, the people in our theaters…from people who pose a threat.”

Kennedy thanked Massullo and Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-Trilby) for listening to the schools district’s concerns, adding that HB 311 is a step in the right direction that also respects a person’s free speech rights.

“It’s always a balancing act,” he said, “but when children safety, school safety and staff safety are paramount, we need to be able to have the legal means to address those credible threats. 

“(HB 311), I believe, will enhance that and gives no question to the state attorney and law enforcement that they have the ability to address these situations.”

Massullo said that before charges are filed against someone for their threats, HB 311 requires evidence showing said threat could be carried out.

“It has to be a due process,” he said.

Massullo said a couple state senators are looking at his bill to possibly sponsor it in the other chamber.

School Board member Doug Dodd said Friday he and his colleagues on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) Public Safety Commission will discuss the issue of verbal threats against schools at their upcoming, Oct. 15 and 16 meetings in Orlando.

Doug Dodd MUG

Citrus County School Board and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission member Doug Dodd

In 2018, the MSD commission was formed in response to that February’s deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, with the task of brainstorming school-safety measures for lawmakers to enact.

Dodd said he’s hopeful commissions will make a recommendation through the legislator to toughen current laws on spoken threats.

“Which would only reinforce the need for the law to be changed, which Massullo is trying to do,” Dodd said. “It will give him…more support for a law change.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.

(6) comments

ButterflyLady

Just think how many times have you heard someone say they wanted to do harm to someone in the heat of the moment. Now all these law abiding citizens will be put in jail, just because of this proposed law? What about FREEDOM OF SPEECH! This proposed law is unconstitutional because it goes against the First Amendment. Not to mention how it would clog up the already over burdened court system with all those frivolous arrests and the over-crowded jails. When does the needs of the few out-weigh the needs of the many.



There needs to be a way of reporting the threat and have the authorities research BEFORE arresting. Seems they can do it fast enough after the fact. Why not BEFORE? When the threat is reported, it should go to the proper agency for investigation first. It's too late to investigate after the damage has been done. Maybe Rep. Massullo should rethink his bill.

davisonlorna

Test

DALEMERRILL

I would instead suggest that we create a Department of Mental Health in Florida. While people are told "See something....Say something." Unfortunately, if you see a warning sign and want to say something, there is no one to say it to. The current system of non-profits that provide mental health "services" have their prime directive of staying in business, not providing mental health services. We could cut down on serious crime if we had some real mental health services provided under a centralized department here in FL.

Ralph's bill will just clog the court with a lot of false allegations. Ralph really should come sit in Court and shadow the judges and criminal lawyers before he advances a bill that affects the courts.

NancyTomaselli

Think of what it might do for domestic violence. Just when Trump is dismantling protections for women. It is a total rejection of Trump's elimination of protection from psychological and verbal abuse of women by their partners.

Old Florida Cracker

Now that’s funny! That is an absolutely ridiculous statement. Not to mention totally untrue. I’ll bet a dollar to a dime you can’t prove that statement without telling another lie.

rmcconnell

I see the need for a law such as this in some cases, such as the situation above. I also believe that a law such as this, if not specific enough, could clog the court system with “he or she threatened to beat me up” situations. It could become a situation where our RIGHT to free speech is in danger.

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