DeSantis' protest bill questioned by Tampa Bay’s top cops, not just ‘far left’

Even some of Tampa Bay’s top lawmen have reservations about the bill, which also got heat from defense and civil rights attorneys, protesters and Florida Democrats.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on a range of topics related to the coronavirus on Monday, Aug. 31 in Tampa. His proposal to crack down on protesters has been met with some reservations by Tampa Bay's top law enforcement officials.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks on a range of topics related to the coronavirus on Monday, Aug. 31 in Tampa. His proposal to crack down on protesters has been met with some reservations by Tampa Bay's top law enforcement officials. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sept. 23, 2020|Updated Sept. 23, 2020

When Fox News' Tucker Carlson asked Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this week who would oppose the protest-crackdown legislation DeSantis unveiled Monday, the governor had one answer: “The far left.”

In the days since, opposition and reservations have come from politicians on that side of the aisle — not just the “far left,” but from a variety of Florida Democrats — and from elsewhere. Anti-racism protesters called it racist and dangerous. Defense attorneys said it goes too far. And even some of Tampa Bay’s top lawmen had mixed feelings.

“Some things are there that would potentially make sense under the right circumstances,” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. “But I can also see just some blanket categorical that would legitimately give people pause and give people concern where you wouldn’t just accept it as it’s proposed.”

Related: Ron DeSantis: Any municipality that ‘defunds’ police will lose state funding

DeSantis' proposal would implement harsher punishments for people who throw objects, batter law enforcement officers or come from out of state to participate in protests that become violent; create felonies for being involved in protests that damage property and blocking traffic; categorize the funding or organization of protests that turn disorderly as “racketeering”; withhold bail from arrested protesters until a first court appearance; and absolve motorists who run down protesters if they do so while “fleeing for safety from a mob.” “Mob,” a word DeSantis also used in his press conference to describe people who oppose the bill, is not defined.

The bill would also penalize municipalities that “defund” police departments.

“If the goal is to balance between protecting people’s First Amendment rights and public safety, that’s a laudable goal,” said Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren. “But a lot of these proposals appear to be political theater that won’t have any real impact in addressing the problems that lead to the violent protests we’re all trying to prevent.”

Warren’s criticisms resembled those made by many Democratic lawmakers in the day after DeSantis, flanked by top state Republicans and law enforcement officials, announced the proposed legislation.

Related: Democrats push back on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal about protests

Warren, a Democrat running for reelection this fall, said that simply increasing the maximum punishment for certain offenses is “a lazy and ineffective way to address criminal behavior.” He also said he does not support defunding the police, but that the governor’s proposal violates principles of limited government and local control.

Two Tampa Bay sheriffs, Pasco’s Chris Nocco and Hernando’s Al Nienhuis, were at DeSantis' side Monday. But the sheriffs for the region’s two biggest counties, Pinellas and Hillsborough, were not.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said it didn’t know how invitations to the press conference were decided. In a statement Tuesday, Sheriff Chad Chronister said he supported some enhanced penalties for people who damage or steal property or injure public servants.

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“At the same time,” said Chronister, a Republican up for reelection in November, “I support an individual’s right to peacefully protest and have taken steps at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to increase transparency through body worn cameras, enhanced training for personnel, and continued dialogue with the community we serve.”

Gualtieri said Tuesday he was invited but didn’t attend DeSantis' news conference because of a schedule conflict. He also said he had no hand in helping craft the proposals.

After reviewing a list of proposals released by the governor’s office, he said he supported the governor’s proposal as a concept to curb potential violence or harassment.

But he wants to learn more about them before throwing his full support, or opposition, behind specific items, he said. He questioned what “mob” means, and how that would be defined under the law. And he had reservations about the bill’s bail provision.

Gualtieri, a Republican, said he can see the merit in holding demonstrators participating in a violent uprising overnight to keep them from returning to a protest and causing more problems. In fact, he did so to more than 30 protesters who were arrested on unlawful assembly charges in the first few days of protests in St. Petersburg. Several demonstrators who spoke to the Times denied they were involved in any violence, and prosecutors have since dropped the charges.

Related: Chief judge says he relied on Pinellas sheriff’s word to keep protesters in jail

If someone is simply yelling, Gualtieri said, withholding bail may go too far.

He said he looks forward to being part of the bill crafting process as the Florida Sheriff’s Association legislative committee chair.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, a Republican, said Tuesday that he hadn’t seen the legislation, and that based on a description of it, it is “going to have to be tailored so it does not infringe on First Amendment rights.” But he said he supported what he believed was the message behind it.

“I think the idea that law enforcement is nothing but a bunch of bad guys — I’m getting tired of hearing that,” he said. “They’re good guys. I think this sends the message that Florida believes they’re good guys.”

St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said Chief Anthony Holloway declined to comment while he awaits more information about the proposal and input from his legal department.

“His job is to enforce the law,” she said.

Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan gave a similar response, saying his job “is to enforce the law, not create them.”

“We hope everyone will continue to respect each other while demonstrating their First Amendment rights,” he added.

Anti-racism demonstrations in Tampa Bay and across Florida have largely been peaceful as protesters called for local leaders and lawmakers to reform police agencies or rethink the need for them after the police killings of Black people across the U.S.

Though DeSantis cited a need to quash “disorderly assemblies,” local protests have had a different tone than those in Minneapolis, where a police precinct burned, or Portland, where police clashed with demonstrators and federal agents pulled suspects off the streets and into unmarked vans.

One early protest in Tampa ended with charges of looting and arson, and most of the people charged by Warren’s office this summer with protest-related crimes were accused of being involved. Since then, local protests have sometimes turned chaotic when police used force against protesters or motorists drove through crowds.

Related: Hillsborough state attorney won’t prosecute muralists, protesters; charges 120 others

“If this bill was in effect already, I would’ve been affected in numerous ways,” said Jae Passmore, a prominent protester and activist in Tampa. “I’m a protester that has been hit by a vehicle. I’m a protester that has been arrested at a protest. I’m a protester who has been on the ground when quote-unquote property has been damaged. I’m a protester that has been in the street with six or seven more people. … This is very real to me.”

Passmore called the bill racist. She and other protesters she’s talked to since Monday are terrified, she said.

After a summer in which numerous Tampa protesters were arrested — with many of the highest profile charges dismissed by Warren’s office — they fear DeSantis' bill would lead to more arrests and longer jail stays, even for charges that don’t stick. They fear even more dangerous interactions between drivers and demonstrators, and that the bill will embolden protest opponents to intentionally run down protesters.

Related: Tampa Bay drivers have run into protesters. Why haven’t they been arrested?

“The person who hit me could see that press conference and hear that proposal and come back for me,” Passmore said, noting that the truck driver who struck her has not been arrested. “We have people who can justify trying to kill protesters by saying, ‘The governor says it’s okay.’”

DeSantis' efforts have also drawn the ire of defense and civil rights attorneys across the state. Mitch Stone, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted in a statement that laws already on the books prohibit property destruction and attacks on police, and that the governor’s proposal “is un-American because the proposed laws will effectively criminalize certain lawful protests.” ACLU of Florida executive director Micah Kubic said in a statement that DeSantis “is doubling down on his disdain for dissent” rather than paying attention to calls for policing reform. Both called it an attack on constitutional rights.

That the bill won’t go before legislators until next spring should be a reminder that people who support protesters need to pay attention to elections for state representatives and senators, Passmore said. She also believed DeSantis unveiled it now not just so candidates and voters can contemplate it, but also to embolden counter-protesters between now and next spring.

“It’s got nothing to do with legislation and everything to do with riling up racists, and getting people to go out and attack protesters, or scaring protesters so they won’t go out,” she said.

Two of the bill’s biggest supporters also represent parts of the Tampa Bay area: Incoming House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, appeared at DeSantis' side Monday. Earlier this week, both remained noncommittal about holding a special session on the governor’s proposal, although in statements they said they supported it.

Sprowls said it “would absolutely be a priority.”

Times staff writer Josh Solomon and Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO SUPPORT: Whether you’re protesting or staying inside, here are ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.

WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.