Florida lawmakers introduce ‘Gabby Petito Act’ to reinforce domestic violence prevention

A Florida Democratic senator and house representative filed a bill Wednesday focused on strengthening domestic violence prevention efforts in the state in response to the death of Gabby Petito, the 22-year-old killed by her fiancé while on a cross-country road trip in 2021.

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book, D-Davie, and Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, filed the "Gabby Petito Act" after the initiative was brought forward by Gabby's father, Joseph Petito, of Vero Beach. The bill mandates that law enforcement conduct lethality assessments on survivors and enhances collaborations between advocates and law enforcement in Florida, according to a news release.

"United as a family, we stand together in support of this legislative bill against domestic violence, advocating for justice, protection, and a brighter future for all," Joseph Petito said in a statement in the news release.

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Joseph Petito and Nicole Schmidt, Gabby Petito's mother, are suing Christopher and Roberta Laundrie in Sarasota County, alleging the two knew of Gabby Petito's murder and helped their son, Brian Laundrie, in concealing information from them and law enforcement. They also accuse the Laundries of helping to hide their son from law enforcement.

Gabby Petito had been on a cross-country trip with Brian Laundrie when she was reported missing by her family on Sept. 11, 2021. Her body was found near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming on Sept. 19, 2021. Her death was ruled a homicide due to strangulation.

Brian Laundrie was the lone person of interest in the investigation into Gabby Petito's death after he returned home without contacting her family. He later disappeared into a nature reserve in Florida, and his body was found on Oct. 20, 2021, after he died by suicide.

Gabby Petito's parents are also now suing Laundrie's attorney, Steve Bertolino, who represented the family during the time when there was an active investigation into Gabby's disappearance.

The trial, which was set for earlier this year in August, was pushed back to May 2024 following the addition of the Laundries New York-based attorney.

The family has also advocated for those suffering from domestic abuse, with Nicole Schmidt partnering with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Gabby Petito Foundation donating $100 thousand to the hotline.

Book said in the news release that they are working to honor Gabby Petito's life by protecting the lives of victims and survivors before it's too late, to protect them in ways that Gabby Petito wasn't.

SB 610 and HB 673 to protect victims like Gabby Petito

In 2020, there were more than 106 thousand domestic violence offenses reported to law enforcement in Florida, including 198 domestic violence homicides and 19 domestic violence manslaughter offenses, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

"Domestic violence is a horrific crime hiding in plain sight, affecting 20 people in the United States every single minute of every single day — all too often, with deadly consequences," Book said. "Each one of us knows victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, even if we do not realize it."

Bartleman echoed Book's sentiment, stating that thousands of domestic violence cases go unreported annually as victims are "paralyzed with fear."

The bills, SB 610 and HB 673, will make it so that law enforcement receives the tools needed to protect victims like Gabby Petito.

"As a mother of a daughter the same age as Gabby, the sheer horror of her disappearance and the heartbreaking revelation that her murder was a result of domestic violence left me in tears," Bartleman said.

"This legislation is a lifeline for those in peril," Bartleman added.

The bill mandates that authorities complete a lethality assessment form during domestic violence investigations, which is designed to evaluate the potential for serious injury or death. The evidence-based tool is approved by the US Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women.

The bill seeks to create a proactive approach to domestic violence cases and mandates collaboration between the FDLE, Florida Sheriffs Association, Florida Police Chiefs Association, and domestic violence advocacy organizations to enhance policies, procedures, and training for lethality assessments.

The bill has support from advocates across Florida including Linda L. Parker, the president and CEO of Women in Distress of Broward County Inc., and Mindy Murphy, the president and CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay Inc., according to the news release.

“The proposed Gabby Petito Act will standardize the way Florida law enforcement officers assess risk when they are called to the scene of an alleged incident of domestic violence," Murphy said in a statement. "In doing so, this Act can save the lives of survivors, their children, and those around them by identifying high lethality cases on scene. Immediately connecting victims with resources like safety planning and shelter at their locally certified domestic violence centers can quite literally be the difference between life and death. The Petito family’s mission is to ensure no other family experiences what they have; this Act in their daughter’s memory will help do just that.”

Gabriela Szymanowska covers the legal system for the Herald-Tribune in partnership with Report for America. You can support her work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America. Contact Gabriela Szymanowska at gszymanowska@gannett.com, or on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Lawmakers file 'Gabby Petito Act' to battle domestic violence crisis