Officer Andrew Widman Act moving forward
A House bill named in honor of a Fort Myers police officer fatally shot in the line of duty passed the first of three committees Tuesday.
House Bill 89, also called the Officer Andrew Widman Act, passed the Public Safety and Domestic Security Policy Committee unanimously. It next must pass the Policy Council, then the Criminal and Civil Justice Policy Council, before going to the House floor for a vote.
State Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, is sponsoring the bill.
“Today was certainly an important first step,” he said. “We are very grateful that the bill passed the committee unanimously today.”
According to a prepared statement from Thompson’s office, the bill allows “a first appearance judge much more flexibility in dealing with” a defendant.
It enables the judge “to order the defendant to be detained and not eligible for pre-trial release until a determination has been made that a violation of probation warrant will or will not be issued.”
Widman was shot and killed July 18, 2008, by Abel Arango. Arango was on felony probation out of Collier County at the time, officials reported.
Prior to the shooting, he had been arrested on a new felony charge in Lee County, but “the current law required the judge to grant a bond rather than hold him.”
On May 29, 2008, a warrant was issued for Arango’s arrest for violation of parole. Before he could be arrested on the warrant, the shooting took place.
“I think that it’s a great privilege to be able to represent Officer Widman and his family,” Thompson said. “We look forward to passing the bill at the next committee stop and hopefully getting it signed into law this year.” Fort Myers Police Chief Doug Baker, a proponent of the legislation, explained that the bill did not make it as far last year. In an effort to build support this year, letters were sent out asking people to contact their legislators and the support of groups like the Florida Police Chiefs Association was sought.
“We just didn’t get the steam or momentum last year that we had this year,” he said.
Baker, who sits on the legislative committee for the Florida Police Chiefs Association, said he and others will speak before the committees to “make sure we put a face with” the bill. He added that Widman’s widow has offered to do the same in an effort to see the legislation on through.
“There’s a lot of little things that will be going on,” he said.
According to Baker, the bill will provide a savings to law enforcement agencies that are wasting time and money tracking repeat offenders who face a violation of probation. He said 25 percent of those listed on local
“wanted lists” are sought because they have a warrant out on them for violation of probation.
“Law enforcement spends a great deal of time and effort and money going out and looking for these individuals,” Baker said. “It’s a win-win on a number of levels.”
He explained that the bill “provides an extra layer of law enforcement, not just here, but throughout the state,” and that it offers more protection to “the communities that often fall victim to those criminals or re-offenders.”
Cape Coral Police Chief Rob Petrovich voiced his support for the bill.
“I think that any time measures can be taken or processes put in place to avoid something as tragic as that from happening again, that’s a good thing,” he said.
A companion bill, Senate Bill 300, is making its way through the Florida Senate. Sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, the bill was referred to the Criminal Justice and the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations committees on Dec. 9, 2009. It has yet to go before either committee.
Bennett was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Arango was arrested in 1998 for burglary, grand theft and robbery with a deadly weapon. He spent five years at a correctional facility in Dade County, then was released on probation in 2004. In 2008, Arango was arrested on a suspicion of selling cocaine in Lee County and released the next day.
Later that year, Arango was shot and killed by officers after he shot Widman.
“It is my belief that the tragic shooting of Officer Andrew Widman on July 18, 2008 could have been prevented had his killer been held without bond when he was arrested in May of 2008,” Baker said in a prepared statement.