TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislative leaders are prioritizing a bill that seeks to clamp down on riots and violent protests, but the measure is quickly drawing heavy criticism from public defenders, local governments, some conservatives within the GOP and even pop superstar Ariana Grande.
House Bill 1 cleared the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee along party lines on Wednesday, after facing sustained fire from Democrats and roughly 70 speakers during a two-hour meeting.
The proposal, among many things, would create tougher penalties for crimes that already exist simply because a person was part of a crowd, take a more aggressive approach to budgeting local police departments and create new criminal statutes against “mob intimidation” and cyber-harassment.
“At the end of the day, members, we have to strengthen our laws when it comes to mob violence to make sure that individuals are and unequivocally dissuaded from committing violence when they are in large groups,” the bill sponsor, Miami state Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, told the House panel.
But critics argue the measure is too broad and that the proposed criminal enhancements will disproportionately impact communities of color and lead to more arrests of peaceful protesters.
“I think it gives carte blanche to law enforcement,” said Miami Beach state Rep. Michael Grieco, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee. “Everything is arbitrary at this point. It is all up for debate.”
The measure is one of DeSantis’ top legislative priorities. He first proposed the idea last summer, after racial justice protests across the nation and in the heat of the 2020 presidential election as he tried to deliver Florida to President Donald Trump.
Fernandez-Barquin acknowledged the governor and “unlawful behavior” in other parts of the country last summer — not so much in Florida — were the impetus for the bill. He added that the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 further convinced him that it was time to “move forward with this.”
“They’re using the Capitol insurrection as cover for this bad bill, and it’s upsetting,” Grieco said in an interview. “And then taking it to another level, it is a 51-page bill, and the result is going to be multifaceted suppression of free speech.”
An identical bill has been filed in the Senate. Its first hearing will be before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, where it is likely to get a hearing this session, Chairman Jason Pizzo told the Times/Herald.
Legislative ripple effects
The proposal would toughen criminal penalties for crimes that already exist simply because a person participated in a “riot.” The term is not defined in the bill, but its drafters are turning to long-standing court rulings that define such an act as a “tumultuous disturbance of the peace by three or more people,” according to the bill’s staff analysis.
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.
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.”
Democrats argued these crimes will disproportionately impact communities of color. Fernandez-Barquin acknowledged that “arguably any criminal statute could be used disproportionately on any group,” including people of color.
“Do I think this will be used disproportionately on communities of color? It is not my intention, and I certainly hope not,” he said. “The intent here is to prevent violence.”
His proposal would also make illegal the practice of making someone’s personal identifying information public, often known as doxxing.
“In this day and age, with the prevalence of social media, cyber-intimidation is incredibly, incredibly, incredibly important because someone can publish someone’s personal information and not just put that individual at risk but also put their loved ones at risk,” Fernandez-Barquin said.
Doxxing is an issue House Speaker Chris Sprowls said he would want to combat during the upcoming legislative session when he first addressed the full Florida House last November.
Furthermore, 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 five years.
The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers characterized the proposed legislation as too broad an attack on the First Amendment and the right to assemble. The organization added that, “it solves no real crisis because current laws address the same concerns, without attacks on due process and civil liberties.”
State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a right-wing member of the Florida House, is not convinced the state needs more criminal penalties to improve public safety, either.
“Creating new felonies won’t deter crime — the real issue is that prosecutors refuse to file charges even when arrests are made. We should be focused on the abuse of prosecutorial discretion, but this bill does not address that,” the Howey-in-the-Hills Republican said.
Other Republican House members disagree with Sabatini.
“There is a very fine line between peaceful protests and the right to assembly, and violence and rioting. And it is when you cross that line that you pay a fine and go to jail. And it is for that reason that I support this bill,”said Rep. John Snyder, a Hobe Sound Republican.
Defunding the police
Republican lawmakers are also seeking to create statutes that would prevent budget cuts to police departments, provisions that local governments oppose and that even some in the Republican party say do not reflect “conservative values.”
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.
“We see a lot of home-rule violations coming out of Tallahassee every year, or attempts to preempt home rule,” said Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida. “But this one … is incredibly authoritarian.”
The provision is unconstitutional “in many facets,” according to the association of public defenders, which said local governments have the right to determine their own budgets.
Sabatini also raised concerns about the changes to the local budget process.
“Problematically, the bill equates overall spending with public safety, which is not a conservative position,” Sabatini said. “As Speaker [Jose] Oliva used to say, ‘Spending is not caring, solving is caring.’ "
Celebrities and a barrage of emails
Florida legislators have been receiving a deluge of emails from Floridians who have thoughts on the proposed legislation.
“We are being bombarded to the tune of several thousand emails a day. It is insane,” Grieco said. “I get that this shores up the GOP base, but I can tell you right now that this is not a concept that is embraced by a majority of Floridians. Not even close.”
The measure got even more attention when Ariana Grande asked her loyal fans — the “Arianators” — to call their Florida representatives to “stop DeSantis’ censorship and repression bill.” In a series of Instagram posts, she shared graphics from a left-wing advocacy group, that advertised some of the main provisions on the bill.
“Makes pulling down or damaging a Confederate statute punishable for up to 15 years in prison,” one of the points read.