TALLAHASSEE — A federal judge on Thursday temporarily blocked Gov. Ron DeSantis and three Florida sheriffs from enforcing a key portion of the state’s so-called anti-riot law, in part, because it “encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”
The definition of what constitutes a riot under a new state law pushed by the governor is too vague “to the point of unconstitutionality,” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker of Tallahassee wrote in his preliminary injunction order.
Walker said the court is not “striking the definition of ‘riot’ from Florida Statutes” nor is it “enjoining all law enforcement agencies across the state from enforcing this specific law.”
Instead, the court is blocking DeSantis and three Florida sheriffs — Walt McNeil of Leon County, Mike Williams of Jacksonville and Gregory Tony of Broward County — from enforcing the state’s law against “rioting” as defined in current statute.
“State law enforcement officers have numerous criminal statutes at their disposal that prohibit and punish unlawful conduct, and which protect public safety and private property,” Walker wrote. “On the flip side, the public and the state have no interest in enforcing a likely unconstitutional statute.”
DeSantis and the three sheriffs are defendants in a lawsuit filed by a group of left-leaning organizations that include the Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.
“While it is true that Judge Walker’s order only enjoins the four defendants, his opinion puts other sheriffs on notice as to the constitutional infirmities in the law,” said Ella Wiley, a spokeswoman for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Wiley added that by enjoining DeSantis, the court has blocked him from directing anyone, including any Florida sheriff, from enforcing that portion of the law.
‘We will win that on appeal’
DeSantis was asked about the court decision during a news conference Thursday, and scoffed when informed the decision came from Walker.
“That’s a foreordained conclusion in front of that court,” he said. “We will win that on appeal. I guarantee we’ll win that on appeal.”
Walker’s order is the latest legal setback for DeSantis’ administration. This summer, a federal judge blocked a new state law pushed by the governor to crack down on social media platforms. And a Leon County judge has ruled twice against the governor and his administration’s push to ban strict school mask mandates. The governor has appealed and continued fighting the issues in court.
The anti-riot law marks another legal hurdle for the governor’s legislative agenda.
DeSantis made the law, HB 1, a top priority after demonstrators across Florida and the nation protested the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
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Legislature under the legal loupe
The governor acknowledged that many of last summer’s protests in Florida were peaceful, but that the impetus for the measure was unrest in other parts of the country.
The Republican-dominated Legislature responded with a measure that was wide-ranging. Among many things, it enhanced criminal penalties for crimes committed during protests that turn violent or a “riot.”
Under the law, a person commits a riot if “he or she willfully participates in a violent disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons, acting with a common intent to assist in violent and disorderly conduct” that results in an injury, damage of property or “imminent danger of injury.”
Walker said the Legislature is allowed to enact policies that enhance crimes and tougher penalties for offenses such as rioting. But, he said, “it must do so within the bounds of the Constitution.”
“In this case, it has failed to do so,” Walker said.
He concluded the definition of “riot” under the law is “unconstitutionality vague in violation of the 14th Amendment.”
Walker added that DeSantis was unable to “credibly” argue that the state’s definition of a riot was not intended to empower law enforcement officers against anyone who criticized their legal authority.
“Though plaintiffs claim that they and their members fear that it [the law] will be used against them based on the color of their skin or the messages that they express, its vagueness permits those in power to weaponize its enforcement against any group who wishes to express any message that the government disapproves of,” Walker wrote. “Thus, while there may be some Floridians who welcome the chilling effect that this law has on the plaintiffs in this case, depending on who is in power, next time it could be their ox being gored.”
When the bill was crafted and vetted by state lawmakers, many Democrats argued it was overly broad in its criminal definitions and that it would be likely to be struck down in court. DeSantis signed the bill into law in April and has maintained it will survive legal challenges.
As he pushed for the measure, DeSantis promised to have a “ton of bricks rain down” on people who violated the anti-riot law.
Walker noted the governor’s promise to say the law’s broad definition of a riot used “a threat of selective enforcement as his rain clouds.”