Outraged by a case in Cocoa — in which a group of teens allegedly watched and filmed a man drowning, but did nothing to help him — state legislators, law enforcement officials and the state attorney's office are pushing for new "good Samaritan" legislation to address the issue.
The family of 31-year-old drowning victim Jamel Dunn also is seeking legislation, through a grass-roots effort on social media.
Cocoa police allege that five teens, ages 14 to 18, watched from a distance on July 9 as Dunn entered a pond at Bracco Park in Cocoa, and shot a cellphone video of him while he was calling for help. They could be heard on the video cursing, as well as laughing at and mocking Dunn. But they never called 911 or otherwise tried to help Dunn.
Dunn's body was found July 14. Subsequently, police say, it was discovered that the teens posted the video of the drowning on social media.
Police have asked State Attorney Phil Archer's office to file criminal charges against the teens, under a state statute that deals with the requirement to report a death in certain circumstances. The statute covers a variety of causes of death, including from criminal violence, by accident, by suicide, and "in any suspicious or unusual circumstance."
Archer's office is studying the case file, and has not yet decided whether to file charges based on this statute, under which "it is the duty of any person … who becomes aware of the death of any person" under certain circumstances to report the death and circumstances to the medical examiner.
Now, there are efforts to craft new legislation to more directly address the circumstances of the Dunn case.
Florida Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Rockledge, said she is working on this issue, along with Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, and Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Rockledge.
Mayfield said they "are endeavoring to assure that the legislation will be clearly written, in a manner not to compel individuals to put themselves in danger, as our goal is to avoid any unintended consequences."
Mayfield said the goal of this bill will be to compel a bystander to "provide reasonable assistance" to someone, when knowingly in the presence of an individual who is exposed to or has suffered grave physical harm, "to the extent that he or she is able and can."
Such assistance, Mayfield said, could include "obtaining or attempting to obtain aid from a law enforcement officer, firefighter or emergency medical care provider."
"There definitely needs to be some law on this," said Goodson, whose Florida House district includes Cocoa. "It was a tragedy" when Dunn was filmed drowning.
Goodson said both he and Mayfield have reserved slots for their legislation in the House and Senate, in advance of the legislation being written.
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey said he is interested in supporting legislation to hold people accountable in cases in which there is a demonstrated "blatant disregard for life" in not trying to help someone.
Ivey said any proposed legislation should strike a balance between compelling someone to help in an emergency and taking away individual rights.
The sheriff said law enforcement officials, prosecutors and state legislators need to be "all on the same sheet of music" in writing such legislation.
Archer said he has been in contact with both Ivey and Mayfield "in reviewing proposed legislation stemming from the tragic drowning death of Mr. Jamel Dunn. We are diligently working to research and address any potential legal ramifications that may arise in the application of the proposed law."
Archer said he appreciates the efforts being made by Ivey, the state legislators and others "to craft a law that my office could use in cases like these. Ultimately, I believe it would benefit our community and address an issue important to all of us."
In a separate — but parallel — effort, Dunn's family is pushing for a new law through a petition on www.change.org that has more than 12,000 signatures, with four related petitions containing a total of more than 5,100 additional signatures.
The text of the petition reads in part: "The family is asking that there be a Dunn Law to be put in place in the event one purposely records the death of an individual and does nothing to attempt to call for help. They should be held accountable by a court of law, and that it be a punishable offense, a crime, to stand around and do something so appalling, awful, cruel, detestable, disgusting, dreadful, heinous, hideous, offensive, shameful, shocking, terrible, terrifying, ungodly, unholy, and unkind. The entire community is outraged and disgusted by what those teens did by just standing by, recording and mocking someone, as he begged for his life to be saved."
Cocoa police say they know who the five teens are, and have interviewed most of them, But police have not released their identities.
The potential charges against them would be classified as a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail for an adult. But the cases could be handled differently for those under age 18.
"We're going to try this and see," Cocoa Police Chief Mike Cantaloupe said. "As far as we know, this statute has never been used in this way, on this kind of case. So it will be kind of a test case. We're hoping that it does work out. We think it can."
But Cantaloupe said he believes it's important to pursue new legislation as well.
"There is no criminal statute that covers somebody not rendering aid in the state of Florida," Cantaloupe said. "I would like to see something that, when there is a horrific case or something of this magnitude, that there would be some sort of legislation ... that would require the reporting to law enforcement or to somebody. I think it's something that definitely needs to be looked at. I think it is somewhat surprising that there isn't something that would cover that."
Mayfield said any new legislation needs to not overstep what's required in providing aid. For example, the legislation should not compel the witnesses to put themselves or others in "danger or peril" to render assistance.
"Likewise, the legislation will not punish individuals who do not have a cell phone or cell reception," Mayfield said.
In a statement issued about the case, Cocoa Mayor Henry Parrish said: "In a case like this, we struggle to understand how anyone could be so cold and heartless, and then learn that there are no laws in Florida that obligate someone to render aid or call for someone to render aid for a person they see in distress. Never in my life would I have ever thought we would need a law to make this happen. If this case can be used as an example to draft new legislation, then I am committed to move forward to make that happen."
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