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Florida House prepares to vote on ‘anti-rioting’ bill

The Republican-dominated House is scheduled to pass the bill on Friday along party lines. The question now is what will happen in the Senate.
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Gov. Ron DeSantis delivers his State of the State address in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Mar. 25, 2021|Updated Mar. 25, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Following a marathon hearing on Thursday, the Florida House is poised to pass a Republican leadership priority that broadly aims to crack down on violent protests and would target local governments in their response to protests and policing.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has prioritized the proposal as he positions himself for reelection in 2022. He first proposed the idea after last summer’s nationwide protests over racial inequities in policing, and later pegged it to the violence incited by Trump-supporting rioters at the U.S Capitol on Jan. 6.

House Republicans fast-tracked the bill, sponsored by Miami state Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, despite facing mounting criticism from civil rights advocates and Democrats who say the proposal is political, unnecessary and would trample on Floridians’ right to protest.

“I think it was hastily put together, and it is based on red-meat politics,” said state Rep. Dan Daley, D-Coral Springs.

The Republican-dominated House is scheduled to debate the bill on Friday and is expected to pass it along party lines. In the Senate, a similar bill has stalled in committee, but Democrats on Thursday raised concerns that Senate Republican leaders may try to circumvent the normal procedural process to move the bill forward in the chamber.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, has refused to hear the bill in his committee, endangering its chances in the Senate. When Senate President Wilton Simpson was asked on Thursday if he plans to refer House Bill 1 to a different committee so it can move forward in the chamber, he was noncommittal.

“We have a process that we are following, and HB 1 will be no different than any other bill,” Simpson said. “We will continue to respect the balance of the process.”

What would the bill do?

The bill makes a series of changes to Florida’s criminal statutes. It creates new laws that target people for committing so-called “mob intimidation” and cyber-intimidation. But above all, it stiffens penalties for crimes that already exist.

For instance, a person convicted for crimes committed during a “violent public disturbance” involving three or more people would face a third-degree felony. The penalties for those crimes would vary depending on the offender, and would range from a $5,000 fine to a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

The bill would also create a six-month mandatory-minimum sentence for battery on a police officer and enhance punishments for burglaries and grand theft when the crimes are committed by three or more people.

If it ultimately passes, Florida would have new criminal statutes that would target people who try to intimidate others to change their viewpoints as well as people who publicize a person’s personal identifying information — such as addresses or phone numbers — to harass them online.

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Critics and Democrats have argued the measure is too broad and that the proposed criminal enhancement will disproportionately impact communities of color and lead to more arrests of peaceful protesters who get tangled up in a violent protest.

House Democrats on Thursday asked whether the new criminal statutes could potentially be abused by prosecutors and law enforcement.

“I am not denying cases where there is overcharging,” said Fernandez-Barquin, who added he does not believe the bill would be “used in an abusive matter.”

Beyond criminal charges

Tucked in the bill are several provisions that would target local governments, their response to violence during protests and their police budgeting decisions.

One provision in the bill, for instance, would make it easier to hold local governments liable for any property damage, injuries or deaths that take place during a violent protest if they interfere with enforcement duties during a protest.

In other words, municipalities could be held liable for damages that go beyond the $200,000 per person or $300,000 per incident recovery caps, Fernandez-Barquin said.

“Not having a cap is so that local municipalities recognize that there is a severe civil penalty if they do not provide adequate law enforcement to protect their residents,” Fernandez-Barquin said.

State Rep. Omari Hardy, D-West Palm Beach, said he was “troubled” by that provision.

“This basically encourages law enforcement agencies to run rampant, and it discourages the governing body, the local elected officials who were chosen to represent their constituents, from exercising their judgment in oversight over these individuals,” Hardy said.

The bill also seeks to create a new statute that could prevent budget cuts to police departments, which Republicans say is meant to prevent governments from “defunding the police.”

“If local governments want to defund the police, they should be held accountable,” said state Rep. Tom Gregory, R-Sarasota.

Under the proposal, state attorneys in each judicial circuit or a member of a city commission would have the power to challenge local police budget decisions. The appeal would be subject to review by the governor’s office, which ultimately would rule whether it should be reviewed by a separate commission for a final decision.

The separate commission would include the governor and the Florida Cabinet. The commission’s decision would have the final say on whether the local government should approve, amend or modify its spending plans.

Echoes of Stand Your Ground

Another provision in the bill that concerned Democrats would add another layer of civil protection to people who claim to have been defending themselves — or their property — from someone who was convicted of “acting in furtherance of a riot.”

Under the bill, a defendant who is facing civil action for killing or injuring a person during a protest could introduce an “affirmative defense” in court. That means they could introduce evidence to show they were defending themselves against someone who was “acting in furtherance of a riot” and have their case thrown out.

State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, tried to carve out this section of the bill because she said she fears it will allow vigilantes to justify their actions when they disagree with certain protests.

“Why do you think we should create a law that shields people from paying damages for killing or injuring protesters?” Driskell asked Fernandez-Barquin.

Fernandez-Barquin said the bill “does not protect individuals who are injuring protesters.” It is meant for those who injure “rioters,” he said.

“I don’t think that agitators would be entitled to the affirmative defense,” Fernandez-Barquin said. “I personally like to think of it as a civil self-defense.”

He added that this section would not constitute an expansion of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law. That law, which critics say fosters a Wild West shoot first, ask questions later mentality, already has civil immunity built into it.

“This does not expand Stand Your Ground,” Fernandez-Barquin said. “However, an individual does have free will and can call the police if they wish. But I think imposing a duty to call law enforcement would be an unnecessary burden.”

The provision, while not the same, echoes one that was included in the first draft DeSantis sent to the Senate and House. The governor’s office has initially included an expansion of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, according to copies of the draft obtained by the Herald/Times.

The provision never made it onto the bill, and critics warned that the language DeSantis proposed would have allowed armed citizens to shoot suspected looters or anyone engaged in “criminal mischief” that disrupts a business.

Procedural maneuvering

All eyes are on the Senate now to determine the fate of the bill.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, earlier this month said the proposal did not have enough votes to get out of committee in the Senate.

Senate Democrats on Thursday raised concerns that Republican leaders may be trying to set a precedent to allow the bill to circumvent the normal procedural path and allow House Bill 1 to come to a vote without first getting a hearing in any Senate committee.

Those concerns were raised after Simpson referred a non-controversial House bill about pandemic-related fraud to the Senate Rules Committee. The committee put the measure on the calendar on Thursday, and advanced it straight to the Senate floor.

Typically, bills that have not been heard in a Senate committee cannot come up for a vote of the full Senate unless they receive a two-thirds vote of the chamber, which would take one Democrat to vote with the Republican majority. The other option is for Simpson to refer the House bill to Senate committees for consideration. (A bill has to pass both chambers in identical form to make it to the governor’s desk for approval or veto.)

Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, and Brandes were concerned about the precedent that would set for other, more controversial measures, like House Bill 1.

“Something’s not right here,” Farmer said. “I just hope this isn’t done with HB 1.”

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporters Kirby Wilson and Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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