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Florida Republicans push rioting bill in wake of Capitol violence. Critics question timing.

“It’s ridiculous to say that this is a response to the events of today. It is a response to the protests of the summer,” said one Democrat.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 7
Updated Jan. 7

TALLAHASSEE — Hours after a mob of President Donald Trump loyalists stormed the U.S. Capitol, Republican lawmakers in the Florida House and Senate on Wednesday night filed legislation that would create harsher penalties for people involved in “riots.”

The proposal, which critics are calling “un-American” and politically motivated, is a top priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor first rolled out the idea last summer in the wake of police-brutality protests and in the heat of the 2020 presidential election as he tried to deliver Florida to Trump.

But after violence overtook the Capitol on Wednesday, DeSantis and Republican leaders decided to expedite the filing of the proposed legislation, with the governor saying there is “no time to waste to uphold public safety.”

“While as Americans we all have a right to peacefully assemble, violence or rioting of any kind is not acceptable and will not be tolerated in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said in a statement Wednesday night.

The Republican-dominated House and Senate on Wednesday unveiled identical proposals that leaders say would protect Floridians from “nonsensical violence” and “increase penalties for bad actors who turn otherwise peaceful and constitutional protests into violent attacks on law enforcement officers.”

In practice, however, the proposal would mostly create steeper penalties for crimes that already exist simply because a person was part of a “riot,” a vague term that is not defined in the bill and leaves ambiguity on exactly who would be engaging in a riot under state law.

The proposal would create a mandatory six-month sentence for any battery committed “in furtherance of a riot or an aggravated riot,” a move that criminal justice reform advocates are decrying.

“Proposed solutions to perceived problems are justified only when they are supported by evidence, generate more benefit than costs and solve the given problem more efficiently than competing alternatives. An additional mandatory minimum does none of those,” said Greg Newburn, the Florida director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Don’t touch that statue

The proposal also creates a new “mob intimidation” criminal statute that would make it a first-degree misdemeanor for two or more people to gather and attempt to “induce, another person by force, or threat of force, to do any act or to assume or abandon a particular viewpoint.”

Any person, who without permission, tears down a memorial dedicated to any historical person, including public Confederate monuments which have been the target of scrutiny over the years, would face a second-degree felony punishable by a maximum 15-year sentence. If a person caused more than $200 of damage to a memorial they would face a third-degree felony, which carries a sentence of up to 5 years.

“When these types of despicable acts happen, law enforcement and prosecutors will have the tools and the support they need to keep Floridians safe, communities whole and property undamaged,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls said in a Wednesday night statement.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Miami Republican state Rep. Juan Fernandez-Barquin and Zephyrhills Republican Sen. Danny Burgess, would also make it easier for people to sue cities and municipalities for “damages caused during a riot.”

Cities and counties would be civilly liable for any damages “arising from personal injury, wrongful death or property damage” if they fail to provide “reasonable law enforcement protection during a riot or unlawful assembly,” according to the measures.

Overriding local police budget cuts

Republican lawmakers are also seeking to create statues that would prevent budget cuts to police departments.

Under the proposal, any person can appeal a local government decision to slash its police budget. The petition would be subject to review by the governor’s office and a ruling by a separate commission that includes the governor and the Florida Cabinet. The commission would have the power to approve, amend or modify the local budget.

When DeSantis first drafted the proposal last September, he sought to target counties and municipalities that made “disproportionate funding reductions” to law enforcement agency budgets, according to a copy of the draft legislation obtained by the Times/Herald through a public records request.

The draft framed it as a push against “defunding the police,” a term used in police-brutality protests that became politicized by Republicans throughout the presidential election. Some Miami-Dade officials have blasted the governor for trying to meddle in local budgetary decisions. Tampa Bay’s top cops have also expressed reservations about DeSantis’ criminal penalty proposals.

The proposals that were filed Wednesday are a significant departure from what the governor’s office had initially drafted and submitted to criminal justice committees in the Senate and House for review, records show.

For example, a copy of DeSantis’ “anti-mob draft legislation” showed he sought to expand Florida’s Stand Your Ground law to justify the use of force against people who engage in property crimes. Critics said the move would have allowed armed citizens to shoot suspected looters or anyone who engaged in “criminal mischief” that disrupts a business.

The Stand Your Ground language was circulated in the Senate, all the way up to Senate President Wilton Simpson’s staff as early as Dec. 1, 2020, according to records provided to the Times/Herald as part of a public records request. But the language never made it into the bills.

Simpson said in a statement Wednesday night that DeSantis has discussed “strengthening state laws to increase penalties for bad actors” over the last few months.

“I am proud to support our governor and join with our House colleagues to make it clear that peaceful protests are welcome, but violent, destructive mobs will not be tolerated in Florida,” Simpson said.

Democrats, who make up the minority in the House and Senate, are already preparing to fight the proposal. State Rep. Omari Hardy, D-Magonia Park, said he will push against the proposal, which he called “revisionist history” and a Republican attempt to “cover up their original intention.”

“He announced this legislation last summer,” Hardy said Wednesday night. “It’s ridiculous to say that this is a response to the events of today. It is a response to the protests of the summer.”

DeSantis’ lawyers began drafting the proposal in response to protests that erupted across Florida and the United States last summer over the death of Black people at the hands of police officers. The deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville sparked protests and, in some cases, riots, property damage and looting.

DeSantis acknowledged Florida had not had violent demonstrations last summer but said the legislation was inspired by “reports of unrest” in other parts of the country tied to racial injustice protests. He wanted lawmakers to act on the proposal last November, but that did not happen.

“DeSantis knows better, but he is doing it because he wants to be the president and he will throw everything on that ambition,” Hardy said.