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Florida’s controversial ‘anti-riot’ bill goes to House floor

The panel approved the nearly 60-page measure along a party-line vote.
A group of about 100 gathered in downtown Tampa to protest, peacefully, against racism and police brutality on Sunday, June 14, 2020 in Tampa.
A group of about 100 gathered in downtown Tampa to protest, peacefully, against racism and police brutality on Sunday, June 14, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Mar. 11
Updated Mar. 11

TALLAHASSEE — Following major changes, and rallying outcry from dozens of opponents for the third time in two months, House Republicans this week cleared the way for an “anti-riot” bill to head to the Florida House.

It was the third time the proposal, House Bill 1, was heard by a House committee. But it was the first time Republicans approved any changes to the proposal, which was filed in January in a coordinated effort with Gov. Ron DeSantis, a big proponent of the bill.

A feeling of déjà vu loomed over Wednesday’s two-hour House Judiciary Committee meeting, as GOP backers once again argued the bill is meant to prevent violence and chaos while Democrats argued the measure is “red meat-based politics” that only enhance criminal penalties that already exist.

The panel approved the nearly 60-page measure along a party-line vote, after making changes to provisions that deal with who can appeal local police budget decisions, and spelling out what would constitute a riot and cyber-intimidation. Notably, the changes also accelerate when the bill would take effect upon becoming law.

As the changes were proposed, lengthy public testimony got heated, and groups representing environmental, faith leaders, racial justice and other interests urged members to vote down on the bill because they said it would trample on their right to protest and increase the possibility of racial profiling in policing.

“With this legislation fear will rise in all people living in the state of Florida that if they attempt to exercise their constitutional rights to speech, assembly and petition, they will be arrested for a felony,” said Tammy Briant Spratling, the chief executive director of Community Tampa Bay, a nonprofit advocacy group.

What’s makes it a riot?

Miami state Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, the sponsor of the bill, explained that one of the changes was designed to combat those fears. He explained that the bill, as amended, will make it “more difficult to arrest someone for a riot.”

Initially, the bill turned to long-standing court rulings that defined such acts as a “tumultuous disturbance of the peace by three or more people.” Now, he said, a riot would be defined under law as a “violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more.”

Adding the word violent to the definition, he argued, will make it harder to prosecute peaceful protesters who are caught up in a violent protest.

But Democrats believe the definition is still too broad and questioned why the bill was even needed. State Rep. Michael Grieco, D-Miami Beach, argued the crimes the bill aims to combat are already penalized under state law.

“The behavior that this bill says would be criminal is criminal now,” said Grieco, a criminal defense attorney. “The only thing that I know is that people are going to get arrested that should not be arrested. It’s going to happen.”

As written, the bill creates tougher penalties for crimes that already exist because a person committed the act with a group of two or more. It creates a six-month mandatory-minimum sentence for battery on a police officer and enhances penalties for burglaries and grand theft when it is a group effort.

The bill also creates new criminal statutes that would target people who try to intimidate others to change their viewpoints and people who publish a person’s personal identifying information — such as addresses or phone numbers — to harass them online.

Under the “mob intimidation” statute,” it would be unlawful for a group of three or more to threaten the use of “imminent” force to convince someone to do something or change their viewpoint on something. People could be fined up to $1,000, if convicted of the crime.

Some critics of the bill worry the provision could lead police to crack down on protesters outside abortion clinics if they try to convince a person to have or not have an abortion.

Republican lawmakers also backed a significant change to a provision that aims to prevent budget cuts to local law enforcement agencies.

State attorneys watching over police budgets

Before Wednesday’s meeting, the proposal said any person could appeal a local government decision that reduces a law enforcement agency’s budget. But Fernandes-Barquin said he wanted to narrow the scope to something more “reasonable.”

The compromise, which is now in the bill, gives state attorneys in each judicial circuit or a member of a city commission the power to challenge local government budget decisions.

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.

State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, peppered Fernandez-Barquin with questions, mostly wondering whether the new language could lead to “frivolous budget objections” by state attorneys because the bill does not set parameters as to what budget reductions would be objectionable.

“So there are no provisions or safeguards to prevent frivolous budget objections in your bill?” Driskell asked.

“No,” Fernandez-Barquin said.

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, an opponent of the bill, told the Times/Herald that the provision is an “intrusion on local authority” regardless of who gets the power to make budget objections.

“The bill still gives veto power over city and county budgets to two people in Tallahassee — which is a clear violation of local control and the separation of powers,” Warren said in a statement to the Times/Herald.

As the measure heads to the House floor, the political divide that surrounds the bill is hard to ignore.

The measure is one of DeSantis’ top legislative priorities and has the support of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, and Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.

DeSantis first proposed the idea last summer as the dust was settling on nationwide protests over racial inequities in policing. He acknowledged that protests in Florida were largely peaceful, but noted that a measure to crack down on “violent mobs” was needed to prevent unrest seen in other parts of the country.

Fernandez-Barquin early on acknowledged that 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.”

In committees, opponents of the bill have often criticized Republicans for supporting the bill, suggesting they are racist or “bootlickers.”

State Rep. Michelle Salzman, a Pensacola Republican, took offense to that criticism on Wednesday, saying the measure is not about race, but following the law. This prompted an uproar in the committee room.

“This bill is not about color, it’s not about Democrat or Republican. It is about law and order,” Salzman said.

State Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee, was tearful when speaking up against the bill. Alexander, the lone Black man on the panel, said the proposal was personal to him.

“This is scary and let me tell you why it is scary. It’s because there has never been a time in American history where the law has been equally applied,” he said, referring to racial inequities in policing.

Grieco put it more bluntly.

“This is red meat-based politics,” he said. “This is going to be a party-line vote in this committee. It is going to be a party-line vote on the floor.”

If the bill were to become law, it would take effect immediately.

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