Ever wondered how laws tackle cold cases? This post takes you on a tour through two important crime-solving laws: the proposed Florida Decker-Backmann Act and the Federal Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act of 2021.  I am breaking down the key points and distinctions between these two significant pieces of legislation addressing cold case murders.  For more on the Decker-Backmann Act, watch this video.

Florida State Decker-Backmann Act SB SB 350 Cold Case Murders, Sponsor is Rosalind Osgood

Purpose: The legislation focuses on addressing cold case murders by establishing procedures for review and reinvestigation in the State of Florida.

  1. Definition of Cold Case:
    • A murder with no identified perpetrator.
    • Committed more than 5 years before the application for review.
    • Previously investigated with exhausted leads.
  2. Designated Person:
    • An immediate family member or legal representative in good standing with The Florida Bar.
  3. Law Enforcement Responsibilities:
    • Heads of law enforcement agencies must review cold cases upon receiving a written application from a designated person.
    • Determination must be made regarding the potential for new leads or identification of a likely perpetrator.
  4. Review Process:
    • In-depth analysis, including investigative procedures, witness interviews, forensic testing, and updating case files.
    • Full reinvestigation is required if the potential for new leads or perpetrator identification is identified.
  5. Application and Training:
    • Law enforcement agencies must develop written applications for cold case reviews.
    • Adoption of procedures to ensure compliance by July 1, 2025.
    • Training for law enforcement employees on the required procedures.
  6. Confirmation and Denial:
    • Law enforcement agencies must provide written confirmation of the receipt of a cold case review application.
    • Applications not meeting the criteria must be denied with a written explanation.
  7. Timeline:
    • Within 1 year of application receipt, law enforcement agencies must complete the review and decide on a full reinvestigation.
    • A one-time extension of up to 6 months is allowed if resources are impractical.
  8. Reporting Requirements:
    • Law enforcement agencies must report relevant data to the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University.
    • Quarterly reporting on cold case reviews, full reinvestigations, and extensions.
  9. Coordination between Agencies:
    • If multiple agencies were involved in the initial investigation, they must coordinate to avoid simultaneous reviews or reinvestigations.
  10. Funding and Applicability:
    • Subject to appropriations for operation.
    • Applies to cold cases from January 1, 1970, onward.
  11. Medical Examiner Authority:
    • Medical examiners can issue death certificates with nonspecific causes of death and manner of murder if it won’t hinder the investigation.
  12. Effective Date: July 1, 2025.

 

The Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act of 2021, co-sponsored by Representative Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and Representative Michael T. McCaul (R-TX)

Purpose: The federal bill aims to establish a system for reviewing case files of cold case murders upon the request of designated persons, ensuring a comprehensive and timely investigation.

  1. Case File Review:
    • The head of a federal agency shall review the case file of a cold case murder upon a written application from a designated person.
    • Purpose: To determine if a full reinvestigation would identify probative investigative leads or a likely perpetrator.
  2. Review Process:
    • Analysis of investigative steps missed in the initial investigation.
    • Assessment of the need for witness interviews or reinterviews.
    • Examination of physical evidence for forensic testing and analysis.
    • Update the case file using current investigative standards.
  3. Certification in Lieu of Review:
    • If the case doesn’t meet cold case criteria, the head of the agency issues a certification that review is unnecessary.
    • Criteria include exhausted probative leads or the unlikelihood of identifying a perpetrator.
  4. Reviewer:
    • The review must not be conducted by the person who previously investigated the murder.
  5. Acknowledgment:
    • The agency provides written confirmation of the application receipt to the designated person.
    • Notice of the applicant’s rights under the Act is also provided.
  6. Prohibitions and Time Limits:
    • Only one case review or full reinvestigation can be undertaken at a time for the same cold case murder.
    • The agency must conclude its case file review within 6 months of receiving the application.
    • Extensions of up to 6 months are allowed under certain circumstances.
  7. Application and Full Reinvestigation:
    • Each agency must develop a written application for designated persons to request a case file review.
    • A full reinvestigation is conducted if the case file review indicates potential probative leads.
  8. Consultation and Updates:
    • The agency consults with the designated person, providing periodic updates during the case file review and full reinvestigation.
    • The agency explains its decision after the case file review.
  9. Subsequent Reviews:
    • No additional case file review is required for five years unless there is newly discovered, materially significant evidence.
    • Agencies may continue investigations absent a designated person’s application.
  10. Data Collection:
    • The Director of the National Institute of Justice publishes statistics on cold case murders, disaggregated by circumstances and agency.
  11. Procedures to Promote Compliance:
    • Agencies must promulgate regulations within a year to enforce designated persons’ rights and ensure compliance.
    • Regulations include training, an administrative authority for complaints, and disciplinary sanctions for non-compliance.
  12. Withholding Information:
    • Agencies are not required to provide information that endangers safety, impedes ongoing investigations, violates court orders, or breaches privacy obligations.
  13. Multiple Agencies:
    • If multiple agencies conducted the initial investigation, they must coordinate reviews or reinvestigations.
  14. Applicability:
    • The Act applies to cold case murders occurring on or after January 1, 1970.
  15. Definitions:
    • Defines terms like designated person, immediate family member, victim, murder, agency, and cold case murder.
  16. Annual Report:
    • Each agency submits an annual report to Congressional committees detailing actions and results under the Act.
    • Includes the number of applications, extensions granted, full reinvestigations initiated and closed, and statistics on identified suspects, arrests, charges, and convictions.

Comparison Between Florida Decker-Backmann Act and Federal Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act of 2021. Differences and Similarities

Similarities: Differences:
Purpose: Both acts aim to address cold case murders by establishing procedures for reviewing case files at the request of designated persons. Jurisdictional Differences: The Florida Act is specific to crimes in Florida State.  The Federal bill applies only to Federal crimes.
Designated Person: Both acts define a “designated person” as an immediate family member or legal representative of the victim. Definition of Cold Case: The Florida act defines a cold case as a murder committed more than 5 years before the application and for which all probative leads have been exhausted. The federal act defines a cold case as a murder committed more than 3 years prior to the application, previously investigated by a federal law enforcement entity, with exhausted probative investigative leads.
Review Process: Similar steps in the review process, including an analysis of missed investigative steps, consideration of witness interviews, examination of physical evidence, and updating case files using current standards. Training Requirement: The Florida act explicitly mentions a training requirement for law enforcement agencies, while the federal act does not specify training.
Reviewer Restrictions: Neither Florida nor the federal act allows the review or reinvestigation to be conducted by the person who previously investigated the murder. Medical Examiner Authority: The Florida act grants authority to a medical examiner to issue death certificates with nonspecific causes of death and manner of murder under certain circumstances, while the federal act does not address this.
Acknowledgment and Notice: Both acts require written acknowledgment of the application’s receipt and notice of the applicant’s rights. Review Criteria: The Florida act lists specific criteria for initiating a full reinvestigation (identification of new probative leads or a likely perpetrator), while the federal act is broader in stating that a full reinvestigation is warranted if the review concludes it would result in probative investigative leads.
Prohibitions on Concurrent Reviews: Both acts prohibit multiple concurrent reviews for the same cold case murder. Extension Time Limit: The Florida act allows a one-time extension for up to 6 months, while the federal act allows extensions once for a period not to exceed 6 months.
Time Limits and Extensions: Both acts have specified time limits for completing the review, with provisions for extensions under certain circumstances. Reporting Entity: In Florida, reporting is directed to the Global Forensic and Justice Center at Florida International University. At the federal level, reporting is directed to the Director of the National Institute of Justice.
Data Collection: Both acts mandate reporting of relevant data to specific entities (Global Forensic and Justice Center in Florida, and Director of the National Institute of Justice at the federal level). Annual Report Requirement: The federal act explicitly requires each agency to submit an annual report to Congressional committees, detailing actions and results.The Florida act does not specify an annual reporting requirement.
Coordination Between Agencies: Both acts require coordination if more than one agency conducts the initial investigation. Regulations and Disciplinary Sanctions: The federal act explicitly requires the head of each agency to promulgate regulations enforcing designated persons’ rights and includes disciplinary sanctions for non-compliance. The Florida act does not have explicit provisions for regulations and disciplinary sanctions.
Applicability: Both acts apply to cold cases occurring after a specific date (January 1, 1970 for federal, and the effective date for Florida). Withholding Information: The federal act explicitly states that nothing in the act shall require an agency to provide information that would endanger safety, impede an ongoing investigation, violate a court order, or violate legal obligations regarding privacy. The Florida act does not explicitly address this aspect.
Analysis provided by Cold Case Advocacy

Both acts share common goals and approaches, focusing on ensuring a thorough review and potential reinvestigation of cold cases. The federal act includes additional details about reporting, regulations, and withholding information, while the Florida act includes specific criteria for initiating a full reinvestigation.

Both the Federal HVRFA and the Florida bill outline specifics that align well with the results of our preliminary survey of homicide victims’ families, in which they shared their frustrations and challenges in dealing with their loved ones’ cold cases. The preliminary results below show that lack of communication is the top complaint. Other results support lack of communication as the top complaint, as families receive little or no updates, think the case has stalled, and are unsure who to contact for help getting updates or reviving the case. I am pleased to see that these bills aim to resolve the frustrations of homicide victims’ families.

cold case

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I am not a lawyer, and the content provided in this blog post is intended for informational purposes only. The information presented here is based on my understanding and should not be considered legal advice. Any legal information or commentary provided in this post is a layman’s review and may not be accurate, complete, or up-to-date. Laws vary by jurisdiction, and the application of legal principles can differ based on specific facts or circumstances. If you require legal advice or assistance, it is recommended that you consult with a qualified attorney who can provide advice tailored to your individual situation. Reading or relying on the information in this blog post does not create a lawyer-client relationship. I make no representations or warranties about the accuracy or completeness of the information provided in this post and shall not be held responsible for any errors or omissions. The use of this information is at your own risk.