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State legislature passes bill aimed at violent protests

Sen. Rodrigues, Rep. Botana back “combating public disorder” bill

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Apr 16, 2021

A supporter of former Vice President Joe Biden Jr. (at left) ended up in a heated argument with a supporter of President Donald Trump (at right) during a rally in downtown Fort Myers ahead of an appearance by Trump at a private event at the Luminary Hotel last fall.

A controversial bill that would make it a third-degree felony to engage in a protest that is declared a riot and was one of the signature pieces of legislation backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in the current state legislative session, passed the State Senate 23-17 Thursday.

The underpinnings of the bill, which were introduced by DeSantis before last fall’s presidential election, had the support of Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero), whose district includes Fort Myers Beach and most of Lee County, and Rep. Adam Botana (R-Botana Springs), whose district includes Fort Myers Beach.

The bill passed the senate 23-17 with all Republican senators in favor except for Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg. Botana and Rodrigues could not be reached for comment.

Democrats in the House and Senate have argued that the bill is attack on free speech that will criminalize those who engage in non-violent protests and are swept up in crackdowns of violent protesters when a protest may descend into a riot.

The 61-page bill institutes new criminal charges and expands punitive penalties for protesters for blocking street traffic, defacing memorials and for publishing the personal information of individuals with the intent to harass or threaten them.

The bill requires a judge to set bail for such crimes which would deny the ability of protesters to post bail and be released on their own recognizance on the day of incarceration. Instead, protesters would be forced to wait in jail to appear in front of a judge – which could take days in some cases.

Defacing a memorial or historic statue would become a third-degree felony. The offender would also be required to pay for the damage.

Other provisions of the bill include a new first-degree misdemeanor crime of “mob intimidation” which has a vague list of uses stating: “it is unlawful for a person, assembled with two or more other persons and acting with a common intent, to use force or threaten to use imminent force, to compel or induce, or attempt to compel or induce, another person to do or refrain from doing any act or to assume, abandon, or maintain a particular viewpoint against his or her will.”

The legislation states that the law does not prohibit constitutionally protected activity such as peaceful protest yet expands powers to crack down on a protest that is deemed to be a riot.

The law defines rioting as “willfully participating in a violent public disturbance involving an assembly of three or more persons, acting with a common intent to assist each other in violent and disorderly conduct resulting in” either injury to another person, damage to property or “imminent danger of injury to another person or damage to property.”

An aggravated riot would become a second-degree felony if the riot includes 25 or more people and either endangers the movement of vehicles through force or threatening the use of force, causes property damage of more than $5,000, causes great bodily harm to a person not participating in a riot.

Inciting a riot would also result in upgraded felony charges.

Municipalities could also be held liable for property damage during an “unlawful assembly” or “riot” if it restricts a police agency from being able to “respond appropriately.”

The bill provides the governor’s office the ability to deny a municipality from lowering its law enforcement budget.

Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer Jr. (D-Lighthouse Point) said the bill “is nothing more than a direct attack on every Floridian’s 1st Amendment rights. This terrible bill seeks to create a chilling effect among those who would be compelled to speak out against injustice in our state. It is certainly no co-incidence that this legislation is moving simultaneously with voter suppression efforts like SB 90. The message being sent by Republicans at every level of our state government is that they fear the will of the people, and that only through silencing them will they be able to maintain their stranglehold on the people of Florida. They’re taking away our ability to vote, and concurrently eliminating our ability to take to the streets in protest. This is tyranny in its most plain and simple.”

Senate Majority Leader Debbie Mayfield (R-Melbourne), whose district includes Brevard County and Indian River County, believes peaceful protesters won’t face any consequences under the new legislation.

“In no way will peaceful protestors face criminal charges due to the passage of House Bill 1,” Mayfield said in a statement emailed to the Fort Myers Beach Observer. “Violent and destructive rioters, however, will be held accountable. I support this legislation because I support the First Amendment right of every American to peacefully protest. Rioting, violence and destruction only silences those protesting peacefully, and will not be tolerated here in Florida. The legislation also creates a process to reject efforts to defund the police, implementing checks and balances to help ensure law enforcement has the resources necessary to uphold the rule of law and protect the citizens of our communities.”

The Florida American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement saying the bill “is designed to chill and criminalize Floridians for exercising their First Amendment right to protest. By redefining “rioting,” the bill grants police officers broad discretion in deciding who could be arrested and charged with a third-degree felony at a protest and fails to provide protection for people who have not engaged in any disorderly and violent conduct. In Florida, a felony charge strips people of their voting rights.” 

Micah Kubic, executive director for the ACLU of Florida, called the vote “racist, unconstitutional, and anti-democratic, plain and simple. The bill was purposely designed to embolden the disparate police treatment we have seen over and over again directed towards Black and brown people who are exercising their constitutional right to protest. It was introduced as a political stunt after a year of historic protest, in which millions of Americans joined together to call for an end to the disparate killings of Black people at the hands of police. It is no coincidence that these bills were introduced by politicians who harshly criticized these calls for racial justice and police accountability.”

“It is clear that Gov. DeSantis and certain legislative members are aiming to shut down political speech they disagree with in a direct attack on the First Amendment and at the cost of Black and Brown people. This bill is a disgrace to our state,” Kubic stated.

The ALCU stated that the bill would also protect counter-protesters from civil liabilities if they caused harm to somebody engaged in a riot.

Cody McCloud, a spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis said the legislature’s approval of the bill “answered Governor DeSantis’ call to uphold the rights of our state’s residents while protecting businesses and supporting our brave men and women in law enforcement. This legislation strikes the appropriate balance of safeguarding every Floridian’s constitutional right to peacefully assemble, while ensuring that those who hide behind peaceful protest to cause violence in our communities will be punished. Further, this legislation ensures that no community in the state engages in defunding of their police.”

McCloud did not respond to questions seeking comment clarifying the rights of peaceful protesters.

Other provisions of the bill are upgraded charges for assault and battery of an officer with minimum jail sentences of six months and five years for aggravated charges.

Burglary during a riot would become a first-degree felony.