TALLAHASSEE — With political pressure mounting, a GOP-led Senate panel on Friday voted to send a Gov. Ron DeSantis-backed ‘anti-riot’ bill to the full Senate floor after rejecting every Democratic attempt to narrow the scope of the legislation.
Democrats on the Senate Appropriations Committee were unable to stop the bill, but they did manage to get support for a study that will look at the racial impact of the proposed law.
The bill (HB 1) would enhance penalties for a host of crimes committed during protests that turn violent, and opponents have argued its broad definition could lead to racial disparity if the bill ultimately becomes law.
“The people across the state of Florida are worried about the chilling effect of this bill,” said Sen. Darryl Rouson, R-St. Petersburg. “This is going to lead to a misapplication of the law, and we know Black and brown people will suffer disproportionately because we have seen it.”
Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, tried to ease those concerns by proposing language that would have required the state to collect data and study the racial and ethnic impact of the proposed law.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and bill sponsor Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, agreed the racial impact of the bill needs to be studied but said it should be done through a different path. It was an indirect acknowledgment that there is bipartisan concern with the governor’s legislative priority.
“I agree with you wholeheartedly that we should look at this,” Burgess told Powell. “That’s my honest and good faith commitment because where there is disparity, where this is happening, it should be studied and it should be stopped.”
Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said Simpson will be directing the research arm of the Florida Legislature to conduct the study, but specifics have yet to be determined.
Politics or good policy?
The fight over DeSantis’ top priority has driven much of the behind-the-scenes jockeying during the first half of the legislative session. With three weeks left in session, the tensions were now in full view during an eight-hour meeting before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat who refused to hear the bill in his committee, told Burgess he believes the bill is nothing “more than perhaps a bullet point in a 2022 or 2024 campaign mailer for somebody else.”
After an intense line of questioning led by Pizzo, Burgess admitted that the governor has had a role in the legislative process.
Burgess added that DeSantis wanted to go further than the proposal that is currently on the table. Last September, DeSantis’ office sent the House and the Senate draft legislation that included a proposed expansion of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law.
But, Burgess said, “There were parts of it we felt were not appropriate to fit within the bill.”
Pizzo, a former prosecutor, argued the bill is a problem because it is overly broad and as currently written would make arrests and convictions subjective. Burgess, however, says the legislative intent of the bill should stand up in court.
“You have much greater faith in legislative intent versus textualism,” Pizzo said. “I have a greater concern that the courts will see the text of the bill and not what we discussed here today.”
Textualism is the legal philosophy that bases judicial decisions on the text of the law, rather than relying on other court rulings for guidance. It has been championed by conservatives and the Federalist Society, the group President Donald Trump has drawn from to make his own judicial appointments. DeSantis was a member of the Federalist Society while at Harvard Law School, and he frequently cites its doctrine of judicial “restraint” to make his case that judges have too much power.
“I don’t fault you for not knowing the nuances of criminal law and their application,” Pizzo said. “But I do fault the premise that you don’t understand and appreciate what this means in application for Black and brown teenagers.”
Where Republicans stand
After hearing from more than 60 individuals, all of whom were against the proposal, Republicans were confronted with a vote.
“The worst kept secret in this room is I need two Republicans. I need two Republicans to ask and to triage and prioritize who you serve,” Pizzo said.
In the end, the bill cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee with all Democrats and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, voting against the bill.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said she understands the concerns about the racial impact of the bill, but that the reason she supports the bill is because she wants to protect property and prevent unrest.
“This bill is talking about rioting and talking about destroying people’s personal property,” Stargel said. “I am all for the right to speech and I’m all for the right to protest, and as much as I don’t like it when someone takes a knee during the national anthem, I protect their right to do it.”
The bill, among other things, enhances criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that become violent. It would turn many misdemeanor crimes into felonies, including property crimes, and would create new crimes against “mob intimidation” and the practice of making someone’s personal identifying information public to harass them, often known as doxxing.
Furthermore, any person, who without permission, tears down any type of memorial “dedicated to a historical person, an entity, an event or a series of events” would face a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 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.
“When that type of behavior happens it goes against everyone. It is not fitted to a certain person or a certain race. They burn down anyone’s building, they burn down anyone’s car,” Stargel said. “That is what the bill is all about. Let’s not let that get lost in the conversation of race and the right to rise up.”
Brandes, a Republican who has long pushed for criminal justice reforms, said the paradigm of the bill is that it is overtly partisan and fails to address public safety in a way that puts him at ease.
“There are some positive aspects of this bill, but they’re far outweighed by the concerns drawn by individuals,” Brandes said. “This bill continues to dive right into the current political climate, and I think that’s what I hope the Senate wouldn’t be.”
Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, appeared to be walking a fine line between a yes or a no while debating the bill. He shared personal anecdotes about his youth and witnessing a “racist society” first hand.
“I grew up, and I have vivid childhood memories of water fountains, restrooms, cafe entrances, buses, schools that were not integrated, not one time,” Hooper said. “I grew up in a racist society. I admit that and I don’t like it. I heard the n-word 5 million times in my youth.”
Hooper voted yes on the bill in the end, because he said he believes “something needs to be done” about the violence seen during the Jan. 6 assault of the U.S. Capitol.
“I think something needs to be done,” Hooper said. “I don’t know where the balance is, I do not.”
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