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New Florida anti-riot law certain to draw lawsuits, “Anti, Anti-Riot Law” protests

The Center Square
By John Haughey
April 20, 2021

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Tuesday, March 2, 2021, during his State of the State address at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. AP Photo/Phil Sears

(The Center Square) – Less than four days after the Senate shipped him the “anti-riot” bill he asked for last summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the controversial measure into law effective immediately Monday morning.

“This is the strongest anti-riot/pro-law enforcement legislation in the country,” DeSantis said during a press conference flanked by lawmakers and law enforcement officials at Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd’s headquarters in Winter Haven.

“I think this bill shows the state of Florida takes public safety very seriously,” he added.

The Senate Thursday adopted House Bill 1, the ‘Combating Public Disorder Act,’ in a 23-17 vote, sending it to the governor’s desk. The House approved it March 26 in a 76-39 partisan tally.

The 61-page ‘Combating Public Disorder Act’ enhances penalties for crimes committed during protests, requires people arrested during demonstrations stay in jail until a court appearance, creates “mob intimidation” felonies preempts local control of law enforcement budgets and allows local governments to be sued if they fail to stop a riot.

Under HB 1, filed by Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin, R-Miami, it would be a second-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison to destroy a memorial, plaque, flag, painting, structure commemorating people or events.

The new law defines “riot” as a violent public disturbance involving “three or more people acting with common intent” and creates second-degree felony called “aggravated riot,” which occurs when the riot has more than 25 participants, causes great bodily harm or more than $5,000 in property damage, uses or threatens to use a deadly weapon, or blocks roadways by force or threat of force.

Proponents cited an Axios analysis that documented vandalism and looting during summer protests in 140 cities generated up to $2 billion in paid insurance claims.

“We wanted to make sure that we were able to protect the people of our great state, people’s businesses and property against any type of mob activity or violent assemblies,” DeSantis said Monday.

DeSantis thanked the Legislature’s GOP leadership for “being able to shepherd the bill through” and House Speaker Rep. Chris Sprowls thanked the governor for his support in driving the bill through contentious hearings and floor debates to pre-destined partisan adoptions.

“We made a promise to Floridians,” Sprowls said. “The promise was that we were not gonna allow Florida to become Seattle. We were not going to allow Florida to become Portland.”

DeSantis blasted the “insane theory” of “defunding police” – acknowledging no such effort has been contemplated in Florida – and said it is a “dereliction of duty” for local governments to stand down law enforcement during a civil disturbance. Under the new law, local officials could be held liable for damage caused in a riot if they order law enforcement to withdraw.

Democrats denounced the bill – now, law – as an “incredibly authoritarian” crackdown on free speech targeting the Black Lives Matter movement, preempting local control of law enforcement budgets and larded with so many vagaries, it won’t survive inevitable court challenges, costing taxpayers potentially millions in defending an unconstitutional law.

Senate Democratic Leader Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, last week vowed the law would be struck down in state and federal courts and, if not, challenged up to the Florida Supreme Court and, if necessary, up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Who will be the person to say when an actual ‘riot’ is happening?” asked Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, in a Monday tweet. “That question has still not been answered.”

He later added: “#HB1 is not going to change a single thing about us standing and taking it to the streets against the injustices in this country. Sign if you must, Gov. DeSantis, but this is 2021 not 1961.”

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