Florida Senate poised to pass DeSantis-backed anti-riot bill

The Senate is poised to pass the measure as early as this week.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, listens to the State of the State address being delivered by Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, listens to the State of the State address being delivered by Gov. Ron DeSantis at the Capitol in Tallahassee during Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 15, 2021|Updated April 15, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — As was the intent of Senate President Wilton Simpson, the Republican majority in the Florida Senate on Wednesday blocked all attempts to amend a House anti-riot bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis has prioritized this year.

Republicans rejected 16 Democrat-led amendments including ones that would have narrowed the scope of the bill, enhanced criminal penalties for police officers that beat up peaceful protesters and made it unlawful for people to picket or protest outside of someone’s home with the intent to harass and disturb.

Republicans appear to have listened to Simpson, who last week said the goal was to make little to no changes to the House bill. He added that he believes the bill (HB 1), which would enhance criminal penalties for a host of crimes committed during protests that turn violent, has enough votes to pass the Senate and be sent to the governor’s desk.

The Senate is poised to pass the measure as early as this week. Bill sponsor Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, said the bill could become law in the next couple of weeks. The bill would take effect immediately after DeSantis signs it.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, worried that the timing could clash with a verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer who is facing murder charges in the death of George Floyd.

DeSantis first proposed the idea of an anti-riot bill after protests in South Florida and across the United States over Floyd’s death. The governor, who later pegged the idea to the violent riot in the U.S. Capitol in January, has made the issue a top priority as he positions himself for reelection in 2022.

Enhanced criminal penalties

The bill, among other things, would enhance penalties for burglaries and grand theft when the crimes are committed during a riot, which the bill defines as a “violent disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons acting with a common intent.”

Pizzo, a former prosecutor, raised questions about the broad definition and who would determine what is a riot. Burgess said it would be up to law enforcement officers on the scene to determine whether crimes should be enhanced as a result of being facilitated by a riot.

“It is a fact-specific circumstance on the scene,” he said.

But Pizzo said it is “very, very possible and perhaps likely” that people who commit the same crime during a so-called riot would face different charges simply for being in separate places and having a different officer respond to the scene.

Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said local municipalities have been concerned about a provision in the bill that takes aim at their police budget decisions. The bill says that state attorneys in each judicial circuit would have the authority to appeal any budget reduction.

Burgess said the intention is to only allow “meritorious” appeals to move forward and said the process would weed out “frivolous” appeals, though there is no language in the bill that would guarantee such intent.

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Jones worried that a “partisan” body would end up making local budget decisions. The bill, for example, says state attorneys in each judicial circuit or a member of a city commission could challenge local police budget reductions, whether big or small. 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, which includes the governor and the Florida Cabinet, would have the final say on whether the local government should approve, amend or modify its original spending plan.

Jones also tried to add language onto the bill that would have made it a third-degree felony for a police officer to beat up a “peaceful protester.” He said the amendment was in support of LaToya Ratlieff, who was shot in the face with a rubber bullet by a Fort Lauderdale police officer during a Black Lives Matter protest last May.

“I ask that we hold everyone accountable, not just one group of people,” Jones said before the amendment was rejected.

What about police conduct?

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, also expressed concern that the bill was “silent” on consequences for police officers who engage in disorderly or violent conduct during protests. Burgess said police misconduct will be addressed in other pieces of legislation this session, not HB 1.

Burgess pointed to a Senate bill that would require police officers statewide to undergo “de-escalation” training, intervene if a fellow cop is using excessive force and also bar the use of choke holds except in “deadly force situations.” He said it was a “great bill.”

Florida House leaders have also rolled out their own police reform bill, which would also set a minimum statewide standard for use-of-force tactics. The bill was the product of months-long negotiations with the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, which at the start of session proposed a host of police reforms in response to Floyd’s death and social justice protests last year.

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