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Florida's red flag law is being used on kids as young as 8 and 9 years old

In Polk County, at least 450 red-flag petitions have been filed against minors
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Posted at 9:08 AM, Feb 08, 2024

In Focus:

Kids & Florida’s red flag law

A law created to keep guns away from Floridians who threaten to hurt themselves or others is being used against kids, some so young they can’t legally drive to their court hearing while others, court records show, are barely old enough to sign their name.

Our analysis found since Florida’s red flag law took effect in March 2018, law enforcement has filed risk protection order petitions, or RPOs, against children as young as 8 and 9 years old.

Long-time Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd barely budged when we brought him the data that shows not only has his county and his agency filed more risk protection orders, or red flag petitions, than any other county in the state, but nearly 20%, or about 450 petitions, were filed against minors who were too young to legally purchase a gun at the time the petition was filed. In Florida, the legal age to purchase a firearm is 21.

When asked why so many petitions were filed against kids, Sheriff Judd responded, “If you're old enough to threaten to kill somebody, you're old enough to go to court, and you're old enough to be held accountable,” he said.

Danger or tantrum?

Passed in 2018 following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High in Parkland, Florida, Florida’s red flag law lets law enforcement seek a court order that stops someone from possessing or owning a gun for 12 months if a judge deems them to be a threat to themselves or others.

In Polk County, while all the petitions filed against juveniles involved some kind of threat with a firearm, some petitions we reviewed read less like a danger and more like a child tantrum.

One petition was filed against an 8-year-old who talked about how he wanted to kill himself by jumping off a cliff and “wanted to get a gun and kill everyone,” according to court records. The child told police he feels this way “when he is mad.”

The judge denied the red flag order, and the boy was detained under Florida’s Baker Act.

In another case, an 11-year-old claimed he had a gun in his book bag and showed a classmate a 9mm bullet. The classmate told police the boy threatened to kill classmates because “people said he had do-do stains on his pants.”

The child later told police he found the bullet on the ground. His parents also reported not owning any guns. The risk protection order was granted.

Most are.

Records show about a quarter of the county’s juvenile RPO cases involved kids 13 years old or younger.

While more than half were 15 or younger.

“We're not going to apologize for keeping children safe,” said Sheriff Judd when asked why his agency has filed so many RPOs against children.

“He has a very aggressive approach to how we're doing RPOs,” said David Carmichael regarding the Sheriff’s use of the state law, which we recently discovered has done little to lower gun violence in the state.

Carmichael is an attorney in Polk County who handles red flag cases for local police departments. He has defended police petitions cases against minors.

“Sometimes appearing before a judge in court hearings and coming to this courthouse and appearing in front of witnesses and bailiffs has a strong deterrent value,” said Carmichael.

“An RPO is not supposed to be used in this way”

“Pulling these kids into court and making them go through such a traumatic process, just to scare them into behaving more properly, I believe that there are better ways of doing it,” said Kendra Parris, an Orlando-based attorney who first raised concerns to us about Polk’s use of the red flag law on kids back in 2019.

At the time, Parris also raised concerns about these civil cases being subject to public record when they involve minors. No exception was made for risk protection orders filed against juveniles when the law was passed, meaning anyone could access the records. Parris fears RPOs filed against kids who don’t mean any actual harm could haunt them later in life.

“Is that severe enough to put a child on track for life, potentially? I mean, these records stay online forever. I have very serious problems with that,” she said.

Sheriff Judd said he would support efforts to exempt juvenile RPO cases from public record, but no lawmaker has taken up the issue so far.

Florida Representative Anna Eskamani is a Democrat elected the same year Florida’s red flag law took effect. She didn’t know the law was being used so frequently on minors.

“An RPO is not supposed to be used in this way because we're supposed to have other statutes that prevent that from happening in the first place, and we don't,” she said.

“The fact that we don't have safe storage laws in Florida is a big reason why these kids are even able to access these firearms in the first place,” Eskamani said.

Sheriff Judd has no plans to back his department down from filing red flag petitions, regardless of the person’s age.

“Shooting words matter,” said Judd. “If you say it, until we can determine otherwise, we're accepting you at face value whether you're eight or eighty. It makes no difference.”

Send your story idea and tips to Katie LaGrone