DeSantis signs ‘anti-riot’ legislation in Polk County

The new law will allow people to sue local governments if their property is damaged during a riot and and will bump many criminal penalties from misdemeanors to felonies.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen during a news conference Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, where he first proposed the idea of “anti-mob” legislation.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen during a news conference Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, where he first proposed the idea of “anti-mob” legislation. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published April 19, 2021|Updated April 19, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday put a cap on one of his top legislative priorities by signing an “anti-mob” legislation into law back where it all began.

Flanked by sheriffs and Republican legislative leaders in ruby red Polk County, DeSantis signed legislation that, among many things, will immediately enhance criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent.

The new law will also allow people to sue local governments if their property is damaged during a riot, and will bump many criminal penalties from misdemeanors to felonies, meaning that, in Florida, many who are convicted under the new law could lose their right to vote.

“We wanted to make sure that we were able to protect the people of our great state, people’s businesses and property against any type of mob activity or violent assemblies,” DeSantis said in Winter Haven before signing the bill into law.

The governor, who is positioning himself for re-election in 2022, proposed the idea at a press conference in Polk County last September. At the time, the nation was still reeling from the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nine minutes, and police brutality protests that sprouted across the United States, including South Florida and Tampa Bay.

“It was promised and it was delivered,” DeSantis said after signing the bill.

The timing has not been lost on Democrats, who have called the measure “vindictive” and fiercely opposed the law because they say it violates Floridians’ constitutional First Amendment rights, that it will disproportionately impact Black and brown people and have a “chilling effect” on peaceful protesters.

“You don’t want us on the streets. You don’t want us to kneel at games. You don’t want us to shut down the streets,” Sen. Shev Jones, D-West Park, told his Republican colleagues on the Senate floor last week. “Our response to injustice is to protest, but your response is to criminalize it when the recourse for us is to turn to the streets to make our voices heard in this unjust system.”

Jones added on Monday that the governor’s “press conference spectacle was a distraction that will only further disenfranchise Black and brown communities,” while noting that all the people the governor invited to his event were white.

Several members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus last week released a statement that called on the state’s business leaders, many of whom are major GOP donors, to speak out in opposition to the bill, as well as against a voting reform package that they say is intended to suppress the vote of minorities in Florida. The tactic mirrored one applied in Georgia, where Major League Baseball has pulled its summer All-Star game to rebuke Georgia’s new election rules.

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In a Fox News interview over the weekend, DeSantis scoffed at businesses who are taking a stance against Republican proposals.

“I guess they have the right to do what they want,” DeSantis said. “But if you’re gonna stick your beak into issues that don’t directly concern you, then I think elected officials are then gonna stick their beak into issues that may not concern you.”

As evidenced by Monday’s bill signing ceremony, DeSantis was not deterred by the opposition and made “combating public disorder” such a key priority that it is the second piece of legislation he has signed into law this year. The first was legislation that shields businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

“We made a promise to Floridians. The promise was that we were not gonna allow Florida to become Seattle. We were not going to allow Florida to become Portland,” House Speaker Chris Sprowls , R-Palm Harbor, said Monday.

DeSantis has acknowledged that many of last summer’s protests in Florida were peaceful, but that the impetus for the bill was unrest in other parts of the country.

Initially, DeSantis wanted to go harder on rioters and looters. His office drafted legislation that would have expanded Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law to justify the use of force against people who looted or impaired businesses and would have barred people from getting state benefits or state jobs if they were ever convicted of participating in a “violent or disorderly assembly.”

But, Sen. Danny Burgess, the bill sponsor in the Senate, said “there were parts of it we felt were not appropriate to fit within the bill.”

What’s in this new law?

With the stroke of a pen, DeSantis has created a series of changes to Florida’s criminal statutes.

There is a new “mob intimidation” statute in the books that would make it a first-degree misdemeanor for a group of three or more to try and change someone’s viewpoints by using violence or the threat of violence. The crime would be punishable by a sentence of up to one year.

“Mind your own business and leave people alone if they are not bothering you,” DeSantis said.

The law will also criminalize the practice of publishing of a person’s personally identifying information — such as addresses or phone numbers — to harass them online. Floridians will also not be allowed to post bail until they make their first appearance in court when arrested for a number of crimes, including theft and burglary during a state of emergency.

Under the law, 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. And anyone who is convicted of battery on a police officer would face a six-month mandatory-minimum sentence.

How will local governments be impacted?

The new law will allow people to sue local governments for property damages, injuries or deaths that arise from a riot or unlawful assembly.

That means that municipalities could be held liable for damages that go beyond the $200,000 per person or $300,000 per incident recovery caps, according to Rep. Juan Alfonso Fernandez-Barquin, a Miami Republican who sponsored the House bill.

“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.

DeSantis says local governments in Florida have not “necessarily” been derelict in their duty to protect their communities like in other parts of the country. But he said they will get sued if “someone’s been harmed or their property has been destroyed.”

The governor said the bill will also target calls to “defund the police,” which he said was an “insane theory.”

The law allows state attorneys in each judicial circuit or a member of a city commission to appeal local police budget reductions. The appeal would be subject to review by the governor’s office, which ultimately would rule whether it needs further review.

If it does, a 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 spending plan.

“This bill actually prevents against local government from defunding law enforcement,” DeSantis said. “We will be able to stop it at the state level.”

Patricia Brigham, the president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, has called the provision “incredibly authoritarian.”

“We see a lot of home-rule violations coming out of Tallahassee every year, or attempts to preempt home rule,” Brigham said.

Looming court challenges?

Democrats have already floated the possibility of challenging the law in court. Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer, of Lighthouse Point, last week said he believes the measure will be struck down, if not by the Florida Supreme Court by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman Jason Pizzo, a former prosecutor, has argued the bill is overly broad in its criminal definitions, which he says will make arrests and convictions subjective across the state. Burgess, however, said 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 former President Donald Trump and DeSantis have drawn from to make judicial appointments.

While there may be legal challenges in the future, the new law takes effect immediately.

“Pay attention, we got a new law and we are going to use it if you make us,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, an early supporter of the measure.

Using visual aides featuring photos of Mickey Mouse, and people strolling at beaches and shopping centers, Judd said: “This is what we enjoy in Florida. This is the Florida we know and love.”

Judd said the new law will serve as a tool to protect Floridians and tourists from unrest that was seen in other parts of the country, including cities and states governed by Democrats.

“Welcome to Florida, but don’t register to vote and vote the stupid way you did up north, or you will get what they got,” Judd said.

DeSantis cackled at Judd’s comments, which clashed with arguments made earlier during the conference that the new law is not meant to be political. Senate President Wilton Simpson, for example, said he did not know why the measure “became a political hot-button issue.”

“I don’t know how it’s political to say we’re going to protect law enforcement, we’re going to protect people’s property and there’s going to be rules of engagement if you decide to riot, not protest,” Simpson said.

After the hour-long ceremony, DeSantis said he had to take a flight and left without taking questions from reporters.

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